EXPLORING MUSIC

A Symphony Born of Rivalry

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 204 Vol. 1, No. VI May 23, 1977

Listen

With this record, Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Cloth-Hall Band complete their traversal of Schumann's mature orchestral works, and return the first symphony to the place where it was born, under Mendelssohn's baton, in 1841. (I am not aware that the concerted works and the two symphony-fragments will follow, in case you were wondering.)

 

Schumann was either methodical or compulsive. He devoted the first decade of his all-too-brief creative life to piano music. Having (a) irreparably damaged his hand for playing by applying thereto a device intended to strengthen the fourth finger and (b) fallen helplessly in love with young Fraulein Clara Wieck, he devoted 1840 to turning out ninety-percent of his rather hefty output of songs. And the following year he gave himself over almost entirely to big orchestral works, including the B-flat symphony.

 

What triggered this orchestral surge may well have been Schubert. On a trip to Vienna in 1838, Schumann paid a call on Schubert's brother Ferdinand, himself a composer of sorts (and sometimes out of them!) and found a whole pile of unpublished stuff by Franz kicking about the house, including the C major symphony. Schumann turned the score over to Mendelssohn (Ferdinand said he could), and when he heard it performed he found its length so ... well, heavenly, to use his word (in translation, of course!), that he felt a great need to turn out something of his own almost as heavenly long. However, he simply could not bring himself to do it until he got all those Lieder out of his system. The symphony quite easily and naturally followed the Lieder. He began it in late January, finished it in late February, and Mendelssohn performed it in late March. (Not that Schumann hadn't had practice. Though he called this his first symphony, he had actually written three movements of one in 1832, but they proved popular with no one, including Schumann.) I am sorry to report that the reception of the B-flat was no big thing, though in 1853 Schumann heard it cheered in Holland, and it went on to become one of his most popular works, even if critics still grouse about the orchestration. Later in 1841 he wrote the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, which just missed being a symphony, and the D minor, which he thought was going to be No. 2, but which somehow turned out to be No. 4.

 

Schumann seems not to have been quite sure why he wanted to call the thing the "Spring" Symphony. At times he said that he was suddenly seized with a great longing for spring [Fruhlings-sehnsucht], a malady apparently epidemic among German Romantics, though quite intelligible to any modem American easterner who has been through this past winter; at others he said it was inspired by a poem by one Adolph Bottger. He thought of giving the movements cute titles, such as "Spring's Awakening," "Evening," "Merry Playmates" (yecch!), and "Spring's Farewell," but, Gott sei Dank!, he thought better of it. What exactly any of it has to do with spring is not obvious to me, but the work, aside from its immediate appeal, is also an interesting study in making a little go a long way, thematically speaking.

 

Ten years later, Schumann went on a brief kick of writing overtures for dramatic works. The last of these was for a proposed operatic version of Goethe's German folk-epic Hermann und Dorothea, one of the least-known of Schumann's works. It quotes the "Marseillaise," ostensibly in repre­sentation of the retreating French army, though it has been argued that this is an allusion to Napoleon ill's assumption of French power shortly before. (Schumann also, however, had quoted the tune in the song "The Two Grenadiers" and the "Carnival-Jest from Vienna," for piano.)

 

 

 

A Symphony Born of Rivalry

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 204 Vol. 1, No. VI May 23, 1977

Listen

With this record, Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Cloth-Hall Band complete their traversal of Schumann's mature orchestral works, and return the first symphony to the place where it was born, under Mendelssohn's baton, in 1841. (I am not aware that the concerted works and the two symphony-fragments will follow, in case you were wondering.)

 

Schumann was either methodical or compulsive. He devoted the first decade of his all-too-brief creative life to piano music. Having (a) irreparably damaged his hand for playing by applying thereto a device intended to strengthen the fourth finger and (b) fallen helplessly in love with young Fraulein Clara Wieck, he devoted 1840 to turning out ninety-percent of his rather hefty output of songs. And the following year he gave himself over almost entirely to big orchestral works, including the B-flat symphony.

 

What triggered this orchestral surge may well have been Schubert. On a trip to Vienna in 1838, Schumann paid a call on Schubert's brother Ferdinand, himself a composer of sorts (and sometimes out of them!) and found a whole pile of unpublished stuff by Franz kicking about the house, including the C major symphony. Schumann turned the score over to Mendelssohn (Ferdinand said he could), and when he heard it performed he found its length so ... well, heavenly, to use his word (in translation, of course!), that he felt a great need to turn out something of his own almost as heavenly long. However, he simply could not bring himself to do it until he got all those Lieder out of his system. The symphony quite easily and naturally followed the Lieder. He began it in late January, finished it in late February, and Mendelssohn performed it in late March. (Not that Schumann hadn't had practice. Though he called this his first symphony, he had actually written three movements of one in 1832, but they proved popular with no one, including Schumann.) I am sorry to report that the reception of the B-flat was no big thing, though in 1853 Schumann heard it cheered in Holland, and it went on to become one of his most popular works, even if critics still grouse about the orchestration. Later in 1841 he wrote the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, which just missed being a symphony, and the D minor, which he thought was going to be No. 2, but which somehow turned out to be No. 4.

 

Schumann seems not to have been quite sure why he wanted to call the thing the "Spring" Symphony. At times he said that he was suddenly seized with a great longing for spring [Fruhlings-sehnsucht], a malady apparently epidemic among German Romantics, though quite intelligible to any modem American easterner who has been through this past winter; at others he said it was inspired by a poem by one Adolph Bottger. He thought of giving the movements cute titles, such as "Spring's Awakening," "Evening," "Merry Playmates" (yecch!), and "Spring's Farewell," but, Gott sei Dank!, he thought better of it. What exactly any of it has to do with spring is not obvious to me, but the work, aside from its immediate appeal, is also an interesting study in making a little go a long way, thematically speaking.

 

Ten years later, Schumann went on a brief kick of writing overtures for dramatic works. The last of these was for a proposed operatic version of Goethe's German folk-epic Hermann und Dorothea, one of the least-known of Schumann's works. It quotes the "Marseillaise," ostensibly in repre­sentation of the retreating French army, though it has been argued that this is an allusion to Napoleon ill's assumption of French power shortly before. (Schumann also, however, had quoted the tune in the song "The Two Grenadiers" and the "Carnival-Jest from Vienna," for piano.)

 

 

 

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