Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Schumann Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish"

Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann was perhaps the quintessential Romantic composer. His work is marked by lyricism, literary or other extra-musical inspiration, and a extreme self-expression. Often his pieces had personal associations – memories, feelings, specific events – of which biographers get only glimpses from the notes in his manuscripts. In his short and often tumultuous life (most of his last three years were spent in an insane asylum) he produced an incredibly diverse body of work – symphonies, songs, chamber music, piano music, choral music – usually working extremely fast during bouts of inspiration. His wife was Clara Wieck Schumann, one of the most famous piano virtuosi of the century, and the Schumanns were good friends with Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Brahms, Liszt, and Berlioz.

For much of his career, Schumann was better known as a music critic than a composer. As a youngster, he was just as interested in poetry and literature as he was in music, and he wrote prolifically throughout his life: articles, journals, diaries (including a joint “marriage diary” with Clara), letters, etc. He founded the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik and was its owner and editor from 1835 to 1844. In a sincere effort to represent a dialectic way of thinking, he created various characters from whose points of view he would write, in criticism and in private correspondence. Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro represented for him the ability to hold and embrace simultaneously conflicting viewpoints, to respect the value of both instinctive emotion and calculated thought and always listen to the voice of moderation to balance the two.

During the first parts of his compositional career, Schumann tended to explore particular genres for long periods of time, writing mostly piano music in the 1830s, songs and song cycles in 1840, symphonic works in 1841, and chamber music in 1842. His third symphony, however, was composed in November and December of 1850, the last of his four published symphonies (the fourth was initially written in 1841 and revised for publication in 1851). Its common subtitle “Rhenish” was not Schumann’s, but he would likely have approved. He had just accepted the position of Municipal Music Director in the capital of the Rhine Province, Düsseldorf, and was inspired by the good-natured outlook of the people in his new home to write a symphony that would have popular appeal, one which “here and there reflects a bit of local color.” He succeeded admirably: the first performance (under his direction on February 6, 1851) was greeted with enthusiastic cheers.

The spirit of the third symphony is uplifting throughout, with themes that rise in pitch and masterful motivic development that generates consistent forward momentum. Its form is unusual, stretching the typical four-movement Romantic symphony to five. The first and last movements, marked lebhaft (lively), are traditional outer movements in their rousing characters. The second and third are less conventional in that they contrast less than the typical symphonic scherzo and adagio movements; they might even be considered more intermezzo-style pieces than full symphonic movements.

Any emotional weight that might be wanting, however, is more than made up for in the remarkable fourth movement. Originally subtitled “In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony,” the additional slow movement was reported to have been inserted into the standard form in order to commemorate the elevation of Archbishop Johannes von Geissel to the rank of Cardinal at the spectacular Cologne Cathedral. The consensus of Schumann scholarship agrees, however, that the sight of the cathedral itself was the composer’s inspiration. The Cologne Cathedral was one of the largest buildings in the world at the time. Originally begun in 1248, its construction continued on and off for literally centuries; renewed civic interest and advances in construction techniques in the nineteenth century had enabled a recommencement of the work in 1842. Upon completion in 1880, the cathedral was the tallest structure in the world until the erection of the Washington Monument, in 1884, and then the Eiffel Tower. Construction was ongoing during Schumann’s visit in 1850, and the highly emotional artist was clearly awestruck. The music he wrote as a tonal portrait is unique in the orchestral literature, notable for the intensity of its overlapping counterpoint and the solemnity and grandeur of orchestral color, incorporating trombones for the first time in the piece for the traditional sound of ecclesiastical music. The rising theme of the movement, like the cathedral itself, literally reaches for the heavens, celebrating the efforts of mankind to come ever closer to God.

--Gabriel Langfur