1841: Schumann: (#2) Symphony No. 4 in D minor

SATURDAY, September 5, 2020 – 3:05 AM

1841: Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor

This is really the 2nd symphony. The incorrect number comes from this symphony being revised much later, and a later publication. It was composed right after Symphony No. 1

  • I. Andante con moto — Allegro di molto (D minor–D major): The symphony begins with a slow, thoughtful introduction. In the original version the exposition is not repeated, but in the later version it is, which I greatly prefer. Schumann starts his second theme section in D minor again. He eventually moves moves to F major before the repeat, but already something unusual is going on. But when he gets to the development the new ideas just never stop. Schumann extends the development nearly to the end of the movement, and when he finally gets back to where the recapitulation should be he ends up in D major and it’s like an extended coda. I keep reading about how unusual the form is. To me this absolutely brilliant.
  • II. Romanza: Andante (A minor–A major):  The expected key would be B minor, not A minor. In the revised version, Schumann indicates that the orchestra should pause slightly before the new movement begins, although the two movements are still linked. “Romanza” or “Romance” suggests a song-like vocal work. An indication for a solo cello only appears crossed-out in the original version. Nevertheless, conductors almost always choose to follow Schumann’s crossed-out indication. This slow movement is amazingly short and is meant to flow between the 1st and 3rd movements.
  • III. Scherzo: Presto (D minor – Bb major): After a brief pause, the 3rd movement starts. The contrasting slower middle section is the violin solo melody from the 2nd  movement, now played by the entire section. This Schumann habit of using themes of other movements in later movements not only seems logical to me but also superior. Tchaikovsky often did this, and Franck in his magnificent symphony, also in D minor. And Beethoven. This technique unifies symphonies and is simply an important evolution. He ends in Bb major, so Bb major to D minor is a morph, and he uses this to flow into the last movement.
  • IV. Largo – Finale: Allegro vivace (D minor – D major): Exactly where the last movement ends and this begins is impossible to hear. Start slowly is unexpected, and when he gets to where we expect he is back in D minor. Then he flows into D major. The finale uses the heroic, dotted-rhythm theme from the development of the first movement, now in D major. The dance-like feeling goes back to Beethoven and looks forward to Dvorak. There is so much of Schumann in Dvorak that it’s striking. The coda moves ever faster and races to the end. Here too, the heroic theme is absent; most of the material of the coda is based on the dancing transitional theme. The ending is emphatically in D major, and I’d wager money that Brahms had this in mind when he ended his 2nd symphony, also in D major. He wrote it 36 year later, and the ending is almost identical.

The rest of the story…

1841 Draft…

Schumann finished a draft of the new Symphony in D minor over the course of the first week in June. In a diary entry of May 31, Clara noted:

“Robert’s mind is very creative now, and he began a symphony yesterday which is to consist of one movement, but with an Adagio and finale. I have heard nothing of it as yet, but from seeing Robert’s doings, and from hearing a D minor echoing wildly in the distance, I know in advance that this will be another work that is emerging from the depths of his soul.”

Experimental and unorthodox…

Schumann fused the traditional four movements, creating a steady flow of music. He was not the first to demand that there be no breaks between movements, but he seemed to write this way frequently.

Darker and more dramatic…

First of all, it’s in D minor, a key used by many composers for something very serious and weighty. But the 2nd movement moves to A minor, which is doubly dark. The norm was to move from minor to relative major or some other related major key. Schumann’s modulations were often very unusual and innovative.

A possible link to Dvorak and others…

I don’t listen chronologically. If I hear someone else’s ideas when listening to something, I just make the connection. At times I hear Dvorak in Schumann, which of course does not mean that Schumann heard Dvorak’s music. Dvorak was only 15 when Schumann died. But Dvorak studied the music of the German composers, and I’d be very surprised if he did not know Schumann’s symphonies. People underestimate the importance of Schumann’s orchestral music, but I don’t believe composers so, or for that matter conductors.

Liszt was a distraction…

The premiere took place on December 6, 1841. Franz Liszt agreed to appear and play a duet with Clara, a star in her own right. He seems to have stolen the show. Mendelssohn was unavailable to conduct Schumann’s new symphony. Clara complained that the orchestra did not play well, so with the distraction of Liszt together with Mendelssohn’s absence things did not go as they should have.

No publication until years later…

Schumann hoped to sell the work to his publisher, but the publisher declined, fearing that this new symphony would compete with the sales of Schumann’s 1st symphony. If critics are often the worst enemies of creative geniuses, publishers are often equally destructive.

How this got numbered as the last symphony…

Schumann put the work aside until 10 years later, after he had composed two other symphonies He then revised and reorchestrated it, and the new version was performed on May 15, 1853. It got its number around that time.

This time it was a big success…

It met with resounding success and was published soon thereafter as Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. This, of course leads to a big question: why do we so often hear today about bad orchestration? How much of this has to do with a history of poor performances combined with too many string players? If you load up an orchestra with a very heaving string section and his music was not made for so many players, that alone will ruin the music.

Two versions and controversy…

Johannes Brahms preferred the original orchestration, much to Clara’s frustration. She backed the revision. This controversy remains today, with critics claiming that the revision is too thick, too heavy, too muddy. The performance I linked to hear is none of that. The whole performance is transparent and clear, yet it is the revision. So the idea that the later version is too heavy or somehow inferior is utter rubbish.

Highly unconventional structure…

Supposedly the audience found the original version puzzling. The revision has some clever  repetitions and revisions, so perhaps Schumann was able to make his radical work intelligible to his contemporaries. Today we have no problems at all understanding his ideas because other composers – quite understandably – have studied his ideas and followed his lead. Today perhaps it has reversed. Today we embrace his form and innovations.

 

 

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