About this Recording
8.571212 - SCHUMANN, R.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Symphonies Nos 1 ‘Spring’ and 2


“You have no idea what it is like”, Johannes Brahms famously told the conductor Hermann Levi, “to try to write a symphony while hearing the footsteps of a giant behind you”. The giant was, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Brahms was by no means alone in having to grapple with his great predecessor’s symphonic legacy. The weight of that legacy was felt by every aspiring composer of orchestral music during the 19th century, but it fell especially hard on those German musicians born shortly after 1800. They had come of age just as the first wave of 19th-century Romanticism reached its crest, and they accepted without question the Romantic notion that music should be, above all else, a means of expressing intense passions, yearnings and exaltations. But though taken with the concept of Romantic subjectivity, they could hardly deny or abandon the tradition of thoughtful musical structure and development they had inherited from earlier German and Austrian composers—from Bach, Haydn, Mozart and especially Beethoven. Moreover, the latter had demonstrated that, even in a new era, the symphony remained viable for deeply personal expression, and that it could be expanded to impart power and coherence to novel musical ideas.

The challenge the new generation of German composers faced, therefore, was to reconcile established symphonic form and Romantic expression. Several of the finest musicians of the day—notably Mendelssohn and, late in his tragically brief life, Franz Schubert—found different ways to balance these apparently contradictory elements. But it was Robert Schumann, in his First and Second symphonies, who attained the most impassioned utterance within classical symphonic structure.

Schumann composed the first of these works with characteristic speed, writing a piano sketch in a mere four days and completing the full score in barely a month. “The symphony has given me so many hours of bliss,” he told his diary. “I thank my guardian angel for letting me finish this large work with such ease.” Ironically, since he called the piece ‘SpringSymphony, the composer accomplished this work not with flowers blooming and mild breezes blowing but in the wintery months of January and February, 1841. The vernal thoughts that inspired the composition came from a poem by the writer Adolf Böttger (1815–1870), whose verses extolled springtime and young love. Schumann initially gave a title to each of the symphony’s four movements: Awakening of Spring, Evening, Merry Playmates, and Spring’s Fullness. But he eventually dropped those designations and any suggestion of a narrative program they may have implied. “The music is not intended to describe or paint anything definite”, Schumann told a fellow composer, Ludwig Sphor. “I was inspired, if I may say so, by the spirit of spring”.

The ‘SpringSymphony received its first performance on March 31, 1841 (just ten days after the vernal equinox), when Schumann’s devoted champion Felix Mendelssohn conducted it during a concert by the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig. The composer reported to his diary that the work “was received with such enthusiasm as I don’t think has been accorded any symphony since Beethoven”. That statement probably exaggerates the matter, though reviews of the concert confirm that the audience accorded the work a robust ovation.

As in many symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and their successors, an introduction in slow tempo prefaces the main body of the first movement. The initial sound we hear is trumpets and horns giving out a clarion call that Schumann described as “a summons to life”. That figure proves not just a poetic symbol but the motif from which much of symphony grows. The principal subject of the ensuing Allegro is a close variant of the opening fanfare, and portions of that theme run throughout the movement.

The Larghetto second movement begins with a veiled recollection of the fanfare that opened the symphony. The rest of this movement evokes the spirit of Romantic song, a genre with which Schumann was deeply familiar. (He had already devoted considerably creative energy to song composition, writing dozens of vocal settings of poems by Romantic writers.) Next comes a scherzo cast essentially as a minor-key minuet with a somewhat demonic character. We find similar movements in Mozart’s Symphony No 40 and Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, though Schumann expands on the examples of those works by having his main paragraphs alternate with two contrasting sections, or Trios.

The finale recaptures the exuberant spirit of the initial movement. It starts with a sonorous flourish whose conspicuous tail of three ascending notes links it to the opening fanfare. The music that follows is lithe and robust by turns, the latter quality supplied mostly by varied recurrences of the flourish that opened the movement. Schumann takes the unusual step of pausing for a cadenza, scored for horns and flutes, just before the recapitulation, and an accelerated coda brings the symphony to a stirring conclusion.

Within two months of the première of this symphony, Schumann began working on another one. This piece did not share the immediate success of its predecessor, and Schumann consequently withdrew it for revision. More than a decade passed before he completed that task. Meanwhile, he turned to other projects, including the composition of his Piano Concerto and two large pieces for voices and orchestra, the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, and the dramatic Szenen aus Goethes Faust.

Then, in September 1845, Schumann wrote to Mendelssohn: “For several days drums and trumpets in the key of C have been sounding in my mind. I have no idea what will come of it”. What came of it was another symphony. Once again, the composer began this work with a burst of speed, drafting the first movement in five days during December 1845, and the rest of the piece in less than two weeks. Unusually, however, his progress then stalled as he worried over the orchestration of his piano draft. Compounding this difficulty was a bout of poor health during the first half of 1846; but when Mendelssohn scheduled a performance by the Gewandhaus Orchestra for early November, Schumann pressed ahead and finished the symphony.

Schumann offered no poetic characterisation of this Second Symphony, as he had his First, but that did not stop critics from venturing their own ideas. More than one detected in the music an implicit spirituality, a notion supported by the fact that three of the symphony’s four movements use chorale-like melodies. Were that not enough, the composition’s signature theme can easily be heard as a call from on high. As a result, this work seems to many listeners a sort of secular psalm, a symphonic song of praise and rejoicing.

As he had with his previous symphony, Schumann begins the first movement with an introduction in relatively slow tempo. Its opening moments combine two ideas: a flowing line for the strings and a solemn fanfare in the brass. The latter theme will prove especially important, a musical motto sounding at significant moments during the course of the work. Its first recurrence comes just before the tempo accelerates into the main body of the movement. Here the thematic ideas share buoyant rhythms first heard in the introduction, and the motto idea returns again conspicuously near the end of the movement.

There follows a fleet scherzo with lightly running passagework in the violins, balanced by two contrasting episodes, the second of which sounds very much like a hymn. The final appearance of the scherzo music includes another recollection of the motto idea.

Built on a wide-stepping melody, the ensuing Adagio is perhaps the most beautiful slow movement in any of Schumann’s orchestral compositions. The symphony concludes with a triumphal finale. As it unfolds, Schumann recalls the song-like theme of the slow movement, and the motto fanfare appears once more shortly before the close.

Paul Schiavo

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