CONCERT THEME & TITLE inspired by Schumann's original design of his Fourth Symphony.
PROGRAM NOTES Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120
Robert Schumann Born June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Saxony, Germany. Died July 29, 1856, Endenich, near Bonn, Germany.
Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 120 First performance in 1841 in the original version (as Schumann’s “Symphony No. 2”): December 6, 1841, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig, Ferdinand David cond. First performance of 1851 revised version (Symphony No. 4, Opus 120): March 3, 1853, Düsseldorf Municipal Orchestra, Robert Schumann cond.
It is well known that Robert Schumann, in the first flush of happiness at his impending marriage to Clara Wieck, after many obstacles thrown in their path by the girl’s father, embarked on his “year of song,” 1840, during which he produced nearly 150 songs. The same singlemindedness appeared the following year when, with the enthusiastic encouragement of his new bride, he set out wholeheartedly on the new field of orchestral composition, which he had already expressed his desire to do upon discovering the manuscript of the Great C major symphony of Schubert and hearing the rehearsal for the first performance, in 1839 (long after Schubert’s death). Schumann actually did write his first symphony early in 1841: his symphony in B-flat (Spring), which was performed at the end of March and proved an instant success. Thus encouraged, he composed the first movement of what later grew into the piano concerto, as well as a biological sport that was in essence a symphony sans slow movement (which he first called “Suite,” then “Symphonette,” and later published as Overture, Scherzo, and Finale), and a second symphony, in D minor. This received its first performance in December with disastrous results. Schumann withdrew the score and held it, unperformed and unpublished, for ten years. In the meantime he wrote what we now know as his Second and Third symphonies. Thus, when he returned to the D minor symphony in 1851 to undertake a complete revision, he called it the Symphony No. 4.
Actually, in its first form, Schumann had hesitated to call the work a symphony at all. The close-knit interlocking of thematic material from movement to movement, and the fact that the movements were intended to be played one after the other without pause (it was common in those days for the audience to applaud after each movement), made him hesitate to link the work with the mighty nine of Beethoven, so he first called it a “Symphonic fantasy,” possibly with the intention of recalling Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, which likewise rings the changes on a few musical ideas throughout several movements.
By the time Schumann decided to rework the symphony for performance, in 1851, he was determined to express himself as a German composer, so he first of all changed all the tempo designations from their original Italian to German equivalents. At that time he was living in Düsseldorf, where he conducted the orchestra that was to give the first performance of the revised piece. Appallingly ineffective as a conductor, he had learned not to trust his players with exposed solos, so in his revision he rewrote the orchestration totally. So thoroughly did he do this, in fact, that there is only one brief passage in the entire symphony in which a wind instrument (the flute) plays without the support of some other instrument. The result, though its performance finally established the success of the symphony, has raised questions for modern professional orchestras, since changes to the instruments result in a thicker-sounding instrumentation than what Schumann himself would have heard. Many conductors—Gustav Mahler among them—have simply made changes to Schumann’s score, cutting out instruments they deemed to be superfluous. Some play the final score as written, adjusting instrumental balances as necessary. And some conductors, beginning with Johannes Brahms, frankly prefer the earlier version of 1841. Brahms had that score published in 1891—against the desire of his close friend Clara Schumann, who could not bring herself to believe that Robert’s revision was not a complete improvement. (In March 1892, Arthur Nikisch performed the interesting experiment of leading the two different versions of Schumann’s symphony on two successive weeks at Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts.)
The decision to get back to the earlier score is not entirely an unmixed blessing, however much one may prefer the 1841 orchestration, since in 1851 Schumann made some structural improvements in the music as well. These may be slight, but they are quite significant in tying the work together. Most important of these is the transition from the slow introduction to the fast main section of the first movement, and a similar transition from the third movement to the fourth. Today the general view is to accept Schumann’s two scores as they stand, choosing either one or the other. The revised score of 1851 is used in the present performance.
All of this is preliminary to the important fact that Schumann’s D minor symphony is one of the most ingenious and successful experiments in formal continuity produced in the nineteenth century. The principal musical ideas—three of them, all told—recur throughout the entire work, creating a sense of unity rare in a mid-19th-century symphony. At the same time, Schumann’s fresh and imaginative reworkings of these ideas never pall, though we hear them many times in the course of the four movements.
The first of these themes, the somber opening idea first heard in strings and bassoons at the very beginning, fills most of the slow introduction until the violins introduce a new figure that gradually speeds up and suddenly turns into the main theme of the fast section. This rhythmic and melodic gesture dominates the movement, continuing into the development section, where it accompanies a martial fanfare figure that constitutes the third of the recurring ideas. It is followed by the welcome relief of a fresh lyrical melody introduced, unexpectedly, in the development section, when it was beginning to look as if the faster rhythmic figure would overwhelm everything.
The slow movement begins with the oboe and cello singing a lyrical ballad, but no sooner is it stated than the introductory theme of the first movement finds an opportunity to return. It soon develops into a lush, major-key passage enriched by a lavish ornamentation on the solo violin, after which the oboe melody recurs.
The stormy and energetic scherzo is built primarily of the opening theme (turned upside down) and the martial figure from the first movement, alternating with a section of languishing and drooping melodies that brings back the violin solo of the Romanze, now sung by the entire violin section. The movement is about to end, it seems, when string tremolos and a version of the first movement’s main theme lead directly, without break, into the finale, whose rhythmic theme is compounded of yet another version of the martial figure and the first-movement theme. The richness of this finale and the power of its conclusion make it one of the most fully satisfying climaxes of any largescale Schumann work. Thus, despite the years of concern and work it gave him, and despite the problems it presents us in choosing between two versions of the score, the Schumann Fourth remains one of the great touchstones of Romantic sensibility.