1841: Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, age 31

Mr. Peabody Says:

Start here, with the last movement. You won’t be able to stop tapping your foot Nézet-Séguin has APE – accents, power, energy. The sound is clean as a knife, and they are perfectly in sync.

Finale: Allegro vivace (D minor – D major) 8:46

There are two versions and a controversy. Read about the controversy HERE:

Johannes Brahms preferred the original version, much to Clara’s frustration. She backed the revision. critics claim that the revision is too thick, too heavy, too muddy. But for me it’s more about how it is conducted, and of course the two versions can be picked from.

My conclusion: the revised edition could be too heavy and muddy, but only if the conductor does not know how to handle it. The original could be too light, with not enough depth and power, but again that would be the fault of a conductor without vision. Brahms most likely preferred the earlier one based on limitations of players and conductors of his time. Clara trusted her husband’s genius. If I had to pick one, it would be the revised, but only by a hair. And I would restore the repeat in the last movement, because that only does not work if it is not played fast enough and lack energy and drive.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, original

Nézet-Séguin chose the original. This recordings by Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a miracle. And this not only the best recording I’ve ever heard of the original symphony but one of the most amazing recordings I’ve ever heard – period.

  1. Andante con moto — Allegro di molto (D minor–D major) – 10:20
  2. Romanza: Andante (A minor–A major) – 4:02
  3. Scherzo: Presto (D minor – Bb major) – 5:21
  4. Finale: Allegro vivace (D minor – D major) 8:46 (repeat)

Sir Georg Solti, revised version

Solti chose the revision. For the more traditional sound, bigger orchestra and thicker writing, this is my choice, and it’s equally amazing, a stunning recording.

  1. Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft (2:04:02) – 11:24
  2. Romanze – Ziemlich langsam (2:15:26) – 5:05
  3. Scherzo – Lebhaft (2:20:31) – 5:13
  4. Langsam – Lebhaft (2:25:44) – (End 2:33:36) – 8:01 (no repeat)

Instruments, 1st edition

  • two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons
  • two horns with valves, two trumpets in D, three trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

Instruments, revised

  • two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons
  • four horns with valves, two trumpets with valves in F, two trombones, bass trombone
  • timpani
  • strings

(The biggest difference in the revision is four horns instead of 4. By this time he had written his showpiece for four horns.)

This is really the 2nd symphony, and a lot of it is in major:

I don’t know what idiot named this as the 4th symphony, or gave it the opus number of 120 when the number of the 1st symphony is 38. They were both written in the same year. Brahms knew and loved this symphony, which at times is much like Mendelssohn, and yet at other times pure Beethoven. And you can hear some Dvorak in this, which means he also listened to Schumann. It dances and has all sorts of violent accents and off-beats. The last movement absolutely explodes. The incorrect number comes from this symphony being revised much later, and a later publication. It was composed right after Symphony No. 1, but it’s still a stupid error.

How much did Brahms love this symphony?

Answer: enough to copy two things, both high praise. The first was that his 2nd symphony is also in D major. Remember, Schumann’s symphony is half major, since both the 1st and 4th movements end in major. Then the ending is the same, two horns wailing on a D major chord with the power of car horns. There is no question: Brahms 2nd was a tribute to Schumann, who he very obviously adored. But it took him another 36 years to write it. Not only was Brahms much younger, he was also a late bloomer.

Movement I: Andante con moto — Allegro di molto (D minor–D major):

The symphony begins with a slow, thoughtful introduction. 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. 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.

Movement 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.

Movement 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.

Movement IV: Largo – Finale: Allegro vivace (D minor – D major):

Exactly where the last movement ends and this begins is impossible to hear. Starting 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 1841 version started as a draft, and the first performance bombed:

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.”

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 1853, how this got numbered as the last symphony:

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.

Schumann put the work aside until 10 years later, after he had composed two other symphonies He then revised and reorchestrated it in 1851. 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.

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 Schumann in Dvorak. 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 do, or for that matter conductors.

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.

1 thought on “1841: Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D minor, age 31

  1. Between the old and revised version (last movement), simply listening to these two recordings, I much prefer revised. But how much is it the conductor and orchestra, and how much the composition. The ‘old’ made me feel antsy like sitting in a chair that isn’t quite right.

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