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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMANN, R.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
The last of Schumann’s Symphonies to be composed, Symphony No 3 ‘Rhenish’ was most likely inspired by a cruise taken by the composer and his wife down the river Rhine. Alternating between austere splendour, great rhythmic suppleness and soaring lines, the work is an aural depiction of rural life by the river and the majestic cathedral in Cologne, and one that dares to reflect tensions between Classical form and Romantic innovation. So too does Symphony No 4, cast in four seamless movements that show Schumann’s masterly command of interrelated material and of symphonic unity.
By Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphonies Nos 3 ‘Rhenish’ and 4
Robert Schumann’s four symphonies reflect clearly the creative tension between classical forms and compositional procedures, on one hand, and the urge toward Romantic innovation and expression, on the other. Schumann’s First and Second symphonies, composed in 1841 and 1845–46 respectively, employ a traditional four-movement design, with opening movements prefaced by slow or moderately paced introductions; scherzos and slow movements forming the middle parts of each composition; and finales that include recollections of material heard earlier. We find that format, with only slight variation, in works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Schumann’s contribution was to fill this well-established symphonic vessel with music whose ardor and poetry bespoke the spirit of a Romantic movement still imbued with youthful fervor and vitality.
With his Third and Fourth symphonies, Schumann moved beyond the traditional structure he employed in his other symphonic essays—though not too far beyond. Both works, completed in the early 1850s, depart from the venerable four-movement symphonic blueprint in certain respects, though the outline of that plan remains apparent, Schumann’s formal variations notwithstanding.
Symphony No 3, Op 97 exemplifies another tendency of symphonic music that gained new strength in the 19th century: a desire on the part of composers to transcend purely abstract composition and instead convey literary ideas, narratives or real-life scenes and events. Schumann had ventured tentatively into representational composition in his First Symphony, which purported to convey, the composer declared, “the spirit of springtime”. Schumann bestowed on his Third Symphony the title ‘Rhenish,’ and he might well have described its music as expressing the spirit of the Rhine.
Although it figures prominently in legend and lore, Germany’s great river was more than a poetic abstraction to Schumann. In August 1850, the year he composed the Third Symphony, he had moved to Düsseldorf, a major port on the Rhine, having been appointed conductor of the municipal orchestra and chorus of that city. In September, prior to the beginning of the concert season in Düsseldorf, the composer took his wife, Clara, on a river cruise, with a stop in Cologne. There, Clara informed her diary, “We were enchanted…by the sight of the magnificent cathedral, which even on close inspection exceeded our expectations”.
It was most likely during this voyage that the idea for a new symphony took shape in Schumann’s mind. He began composing the work on November 2 and finished it on December 9 (Schumann often wrote his works with this sort of extraordinary speed.) The title ‘Rhenish’ was suggested by a violinist in the Düsseldorf orchestra, who claimed to hear the Rhine flowing through the symphony’s music. Whether this was his own insight or one gleaned from Schumann’s remarks is impossible to say.
In this work, Schumann expands the conventional symphonic layout to five movements. The addition, which comes between the slow movement and the finale, reportedly was inspired by a ceremony the composer witnessed at the Cologne cathedral. Its music has an austere splendor, and its contrapuntal textures are reminiscent of the music of Bach, which Schumann revered. But while this added movement appears to enlarge the symphony beyond the classical four-movement ideal, the reality is more complex. Something about this fourth movement feels anticipatory, creating a sense of expectation that is fulfilled by the finale. As a result, there seems an intangible link between these two movements that allows us to conceive them as a single “Prelude and Finale”.
Schumann begins the symphony with an exultant theme whose energy stems largely from the syncopations of its opening measures. (At first it is unclear whether the music’s pulse is that of a quick a 3/4 or a broad 3/2 meter.) Not only this rhythmic suppleness but the music’s propulsive drive and soaring lines presages the symphonic style of Schumann’s protégé, Johannes Brahms. The connection with Brahms’s symphonic writing becomes even more explicit late in the movement, where the strings sound a variant of the movement’s opening motif that Brahms would adopt as the opening theme of his Third Symphony.
Although Schumann designates the second movement a scherzo, its relaxed music suggests a Ländler, the country-cousin to the waltz. The composer originally considered calling this movement “Morning on the Rhine”, and its bucolic character can easily be heard as an aural picture of rural life by the river.
The slow movement that follows forms the symphony’s beautiful central panel and demonstrates Schumann’s gift for felicitous melodic invention. Next comes the solemn fourth movement, its hymn-like main theme and organ-like sonorities creating a decidedly ecclesiastic atmosphere. Following music of such dignified restraint, the finale seems all the more buoyant. Here, as in the first movement, rhythm accounts for much of the music’s vigor. Schumann guides the movement inexorably to a triumphant climax, at which a recollection of the fourth movement’s principal motif rings out gloriously.
The rapidity and apparent ease with which Schumann composed his ‘Rhenish’ Symphony was not unusual. He had written his First Symphony in a similarly concentrated burst of creativity, and other large works also took shape in remarkably short periods of time. The long and difficult genesis of the composer’s Symphony No 4, Op 120, while not unique among Schumann’s works, is nevertheless notable.
Schumann began composing this symphony in the spring of 1841, shortly after the successful premiere of his First Symphony, the so-called ‘Spring’ Symphony. On May 31, Clara Schumann noted in her diary: “Yesterday Robert began another symphony […] I observe Robert’s enthusiasm and hear D minor sounding wildly from a distance”. On September 13, Clara’s birthday, Schumann presented to her the score of the newly completed symphony. The first performance of this piece, a work in D Minor, as Clara had surmised, occurred on December 6 at a concert by the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. To Schumann’s dismay, the new composition received nothing like the enthusiastic ovation accorded his First Symphony. Rather, both the audience and the orchestra responded tepidly. In the face of this setback, Schumann withdrew the work from further performance.
A full decade passed before the composer returned to this symphony, at which time he amended its orchestration and other matters. This new version of the work was published in 1853 as the composer’s Fourth Symphony, Op 120. (Schumann had meanwhile completed his Symphony No 2, and the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony).
The Fourth Symphony unfolds in four movements, but these are connected to form an unbroken span of music. Thematic connections span the work, imparting an even stronger sense of formal unity. Schumann prefaces the first movement with a slow introduction built on a melodic line that falls and rises in evenly flowing rhythms. This leads to the initial stirring of what will prove the principal theme of the first movement proper. Its fiery melody dominates the movement to an unusual degree. Of several secondary subjects, the most important is a series of robust chords that will reappear in the finale.
A plaintive oboe melody starts the second movement, but this lament quickly gives way to the flowing theme of the symphony’s opening moments. Lyrical contrast comes in the form of a florid melody played by solo violin. The ensuing scherzo brings more of the thematic connections that bind the symphony. Its robust initial subject is a mirror image of the symphony’s initial theme, while the central trio section recycles the melody of the previous movement’s violin solo.
Schumann clearly modelled the transition to the finale on the corresponding passage in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Against tremolo rumblings emerge fragments of the first movement’s principal theme, punctuated by solemn chords in the brass. Soon the music breaks into a triumphant Allegro. Its principal melody derives from the chordal motif of the opening movement, though Schumann presents more lyrical ideas also. Development of his materials includes a brief fugato passage as well as melodic fragments skillfully combined and juxtaposed. As in the first movement, a coda in accelerated tempo concludes the proceedings.
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