1841: Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in Bb major

THURSDAY, September 3, 2020 – 10:16 AM

Nézet-Séguin…

I used to hear this guy live almost every week, driving. He’s featured on Sirius Radio conducting Philadelphia, so I know he’s good, and I like everything I’ve read about him. He is the best of a newer generation who gets along with the orchestra, giving his players full credit and so to me is everything good about what is developing. Then I found this recording, and it’s another rave. I had read about it from people listing best recordings, and it’s very fine.

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in Bb major

Bernstein

I can’t  just stop with a modern conductor, as good as Nézet-Séguin is, because another man famous for conducting Schumann has to be listened too. I’m very interested in performance times, so let’s look at the time for each movement.

Now, which is better?

My answer is that both are amazingly convincing in different ways, and that’s what makes listening to different performances so fascinating.

Orchestration:

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, triangle, strings.

The “Spring Symphony”…

This is the first completed symphonic work composed by Robert Schumann, and there is a great deal of background about a story behind the symphony. I’m skipping it because it does not interest me. I want the music, and I want to judge the music only by the music.

1841…

Schumann was born in June of 1810 just three months later than Chopin, and that means that there was a cluster of incredible genius born almost at the same time – Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Verdi, Wagner. They were all born from 1809 to 1813, and they were all geniuses. There is no much I like about that time. But there has never been a better time for musical geniuses. The important thing is that Schumann was 31 or very nearly 31 when he completed his 1st symphony, and that means he was fully mature. There is no need to explain why his music was not great yet, because it was.

Support from his wife…

Soon after he married Clara Wieck he composed his first symphony starting in early 1841. Until then, Schumann was largely known for his works for the piano and for voice. Clara encouraged him to write symphonic music, noting in her diary:

“it would be best if he composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano… His compositions are all orchestral in feeling… My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra—that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!”

Now you are hearing the result.

Mendelssohn conducted…

Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere on March 31, 1841 in Leipzig, where the symphony was warmly received. Schumann was not quite 31, and Mendelssohn was barely 32. What was it like to live at a time when geniuses supported each other this way? And who know that this young conductor would be dead only six years later.

Three timpani…

Schumann expanded the use of timpani in this symphony, using the unusual tuning of B♭, G♭, and F in the first movement, and D, A, and F in the third, at the suggestion of Schumann’s cousin-in-law, Ernst Pfundt. It was the first major orchestral work of its style to require three timpani. Triangle was a nice addition.

Revised in 1853…

Schumann made revisions before publishing it in 1853. 

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