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Signature Concert 5: Intense, Playful & Serene
May 14 @ 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm MDT
This concert is also available for Livestream on May 14th.
Chen Yi’s intense, high-spirited, and hopeful composition, Ge Xu (Antiphony), is a tribute to Southern China’s Zhuang minority people and their celebratory song styles. Claude Debussy accesses playful emotions in Children’s Corner, dedicated to his young daughter and her favorite toys. He turns to an impressionistic sensuality in his tone poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. Finally, Robert Schumann expresses both the tenacity and serenity of earth’s annual awakening in Symphony No. 1, Spring.
At the Lincoln Center
417 West Magnolia St.
Fort Collins, CO 80521
Join us for a celebratory toast before the concert!
The Fort Collins Symphony invites you to join Maestro Kenney in the performance hall at 6:15 p.m. to lift a glass of complimentary champagne/sparkling water in gratitude to our patrons for their support for the past two Seasons.
If you cannot join us at 6:15 for the toast, you are still welcome to pick up your complimentary glass prior to downbeat at 7:30.
This celebratory toast is sponsored by Carol Ann and Gary Hixon, Mary and Paul Kopco, and Nancy and Denis Symes.
Claude Debussy’s playful Children’s Corner is a collection of short pieces dedicated to his young daughter, “Chouchou.” Over the six movements, Debussy portrays snow falling in a snow globe, Chouchou’s dolls dancing, P.T. Barnum’s elephant Jumbo, and more. It is likely that Debussy played these vignettes as his toddler sat near him.
Debussy’s sensual Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun summons the hazy, dream-like atmosphere of French painting and poetry. Based on the symbolist poem “The Afternoon of a Faun” by Stéphane Mallarmé, Debussy’s work represents rather than recreates. “Like the poetry upon which it is based,” says Musicologist Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, “Debussy’s score provides musical images with softened edges, creating a hazy perception of an encounter that has not yet begun.”
In Ge Xu (Antiphony), composer Chen Yi recreates the celebratory songs and dances of the Zhuang minority people of Southern China. She blends traditional styles and sounds to evoke antiphonal singing in celebration of the lunar New Year.
Robert Schumann’s Spring Symphony beckons the awakening of spring and the blooming of new life. Inspired by Adolf Böttger’s “Song of Spring,” the opening fanfare declares “O turn, turn your course / Spring is blooming in the valley!” In a letter to the conductor Wilhelm Taubert, Schumann requested, “While playing, could you infuse your orchestra with some spring yearning…I would like to have the first trumpet entry sound as if from on high, like a call to awake.”
Dr. David and Alison Dennis
Dr. Ed Siegel
Dr. Peter Springberg and Janet Kowall
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Week-of Concert Events:
Wednesday, May 11 at noon
In-person at the Old Town Library
Join CSU professor Dr. Dawn Grapes on the Wednesday prior to most Signature concerts for an entertaining and informative lecture about the upcoming featured composers. Light refreshments. Sponsored by the Friends of the Symphony.
Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 p.m.
at the Lincoln Center
Learn firsthand what it takes for an orchestra to bring live music to the stage. Houselights remain on during this comfortable preview of each upcoming Signature concert. The rehearsal closes to the public at 8:30 p.m. intermission. Sponsored by Bank of Colorado.
Saturday, May 14 at 6:30 p.m.
at the Lincoln Center
included with ticket purchase
Prior to each Signature concert, join Maestro Wes Kenney for his musings on what you are about to hear.
Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes
by Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Date of Composition: 1908/1910
Arranged for orchestra by André Caplet
Duration: 17 minutes
1905 marked a special time in the life of French composer Claude Debussy. In October of that year, he was blessed with a beautiful baby daughter. He and newly-divorced wife Emma Bardac bestowed upon her their own names in the form of Claude-Emma, but adoringly called the little girl Chouchou. Not too long afterward, the composer began writing a series of piano pieces that would become his Children’s Corner, completed in 1908. He dedicated the collection of six short movements to “my dear little Chouchou, with her father’s tender apologies for what is to follow.” While beauty often emanates from Debussy’s music, the composer himself could be gruff and gloomy. Children’s Corner portrays a side of Debussy not often revealed, that of affection and tenderness for the daughter he so deeply loved. As a result of the dedication, some have surmised that perhaps Debussy was writing music Chouchou might one day play herself, but it seems more likely that Debussy wrote the vignettes to play as the toddler sat near him at the piano. In 1910, Debussy’s Parisian colleague André Caplet orchestrated the piano work, conducting the symphonic premiere that same year in New York.
The set opens with “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum,” referencing Clementi’s book of piano exercises and the tedium of scale practice. What begins as a regular set of scalar patterns gradually transforms, as the fictional player’s thoughts drift away and return. “Jimbo’s Lullaby” lovingly brings to life a child’s stuffed elephant, presumably named after P. T. Barnum’s magnificent creature Jumbo, who in the 1860s was housed in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. The opening melody can only be described as lumbering. “Serenade for the Doll” was the first movement composed, evoking visions of imaginary interactions between Chouchou’s toys. “The Snow is Dancing” presents slow metamorphoses of ostinati patterns, envisioning a young girl watching the snow fall from her nursery window, or perhaps through a snow globe purchased for her by her father. “The Little Shepherd” is one of a number of pieces in which Debussy explores the pastoral world. Not unusually for the composer, the movement opens with a single melodic line, evoking a shepherd’s pipe. In Debussy’s orchestral compositions, most notably Prelude to the Afternoon of Faun, a pipe sound is often played by a solo flute, but Caplet chose to represent this shepherd with the oboe. The pipe-song returns twice again, transporting listeners to a countryside long ago. The final movement, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” fits in well with French society’s enthrallment at the turn of the century with the music of the United States, heard in many types of public entertainment establishments including cabarets, concert halls, supper clubs, and even at the circus. Black rag dolls were also in vogue, and Chouchou may have owned one in her collection, perhaps even one inspired by Florence Upton’s book character, Golliwog. “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” is an example of Debussy’s nod to jazz, with a syncopated dance section that bookends a satirical reference to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, barely masking the composer’s contempt for the German master.
Claude-Emma died in 1919 at only 13 years old, just a year after her father.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune)
by Claude Debussy
Date of Composition: 1894
Duration: 10 minutes
Debussy was a critical figure in the transition from 19th-century romanticism to modern music. He was the most prominent composer associated with the musical style termed impressionism, an extension of the visual arts movement so named after Claude Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, soleil levant. In truth, Debussy was inspired much more by the symbolist poets with whom he spent his free time than Parisian painters, but his compositions surely exhibit aural characteristics that parallel the same effects produced visually in impressionist paintings, as well as through the words of his poet friends. Debussy entered the Paris Conservatoire at age ten. His mother had taught him the basics of reading and writing, but he had had no formal education beyond that. That he later found himself so at home in literary circles is remarkable. Debussy was a brilliant pianist, but instead chose composition after he failed to pass his piano exams. As time passed, he became more disenchanted with the traditional romantic approach to composition taught at the conservatory and established his own musical voice. In many late 19th-century musical works, thick textures and extended harmonies dominate. Instead, Debussy embraced ethereal lightness, parallel movement, blurred metrical and formal patterns, and quartal and modal harmonies.
Although Debussy composed across the genres, he was especially well known for his piano pieces and art songs. The orchestral Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, however, has become one of his most iconic compositions, a masterwork even. The tone poem was inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s verse L’après-midi d’un faune, written between 1865 and 1867 and published in 1876. The main character of the poem is a faun—a half man, half goat—who spends his time pursuing nymphs and playing upon his pan flute. Told as if from a dream, Mallarmé’s faun recounts his encounters with the nymphs in a way that is vague, leaving the reader to wonder if the story really happened, or if it was all simply a dream. Like the poetry upon which it is based, Debussy’s score provides musical images with softened edges, creating a hazy perception of an encounter that has not yet begun. The opening flute solo of Prélude sets up the programmatic scene,for long before the faun appears, the music emanating from his pipes is heard in the distance. Each subsequent restatement is heard differently, with fluctuating harmonies, like light changing throughout the day.
Debussy began several renditions of incidental music to accompany a reading of Mallarmé’s poem, but never completed any of them. The version we know today was certainly inspired by these initial attempts, and may even be a fusion of fragments from these. In an 1896 letter, Debussy wrote: “The Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, my dear Sir, is perhaps what remains of the dream at the end of the faun’s flute. More precisely, it is a general impression of the poem…” Mallarmé was not keen on the idea that his poetry be set to music, but was somewhat calmed when Debussy played him the piano score before the work’s premiere. Mallarmé expressed his contentment with the final product in a bit of verse sent to the composer:
Sylvain of ancient breath
If your flute succeeded
Hear all the light
That Debussy blew there.
Ge Xu (Antiphony)
by Chen Yi (b. 1953)
Date of Composition: 1994
Duration: 8 minutes
Chen Yi is just one of a noted group of composers who grew up in China in the mid-20th century, known for successfully fusing traditional Chinese musical elements with Western compositional techniques. Chen was born into a musical family and learned to play the violin and piano at an early age. When the Cultural Revolution began in the 1960s, her parents were tagged as intellectuals and the family was separated and relocated to the country for “rehabilitation” through forced labor, in which the children also participated. Chen recalls secretly practicing Mozart, soundproofing her instruments and room as much as possible to avoid detection. At age seventeen, Chen was allowed to return to her hometown to become leader of the local Beijing Opera Company. Upon the Cultural Revolution’s official end, Chen enrolled in the first composition class of the reopened Beijing Central Conservatory, where she eventually became the first female to earn a master’s degree in composition. In the 1980s, she moved to the United States to study at Columbia University, receiving her doctorate in 1993.
Ge Xu (Antiphony), is an excellent example of Eastern-Western musical fusion. Orchestrated for a traditional Western orchestra, the composer uses traditional and extended techniques to create an atmosphere of the celebrations one might encounter in the southern regions of China. Chen drew inspiration from three folk tunes of the area and with them mirrored the practice of different individuals or groups singing back and forth to each other, hence the title Antiphony. Use of glissandi and harmonics imitate sounds of traditional instruments. The final section of the piece draws upon an irregular meter and features a prominent percussion section to fashion an unrestrained, exuberant dance that culminates with a single reedy voice nostalgically looking back upon what once was.
Symphony no. 1 in B-flat, “Spring“
by Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Date of Composition: 1841
Duration: 35 minutes
It is easy to forget that there was quite a bit of overlap in the lives of many canonic 19th-century musicians. Individuals filled multiple roles as composers, conductors, and performers. Many of those whose music is still played today knew each other, corresponded regularly, programmed and performed each other’s compositions, and collaborated in public concerts. Robert Schumann was a hub in this interconnected musical world. In his music periodical Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he heralded the abilities of a young pianist by the name of Frederic Chopin. Later he proclaimed Johannes Brahms the next great figure in German music. He and his wife Clara mentored and befriended the young Brahms, becoming major influences in his career and lifelong friends. Clara herself was a composer, as well as a remarkable pianist, recognized as one of the best of her time. She shared the stage with Franz Liszt in a Leipzig recital not long after her marriage. Robert wrote pieces specifically for violin phenom Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s good friend and collaborator. One especially fruitful connection was the Schumanns’s friendship with Felix Mendelssohn. The couple resided in Leipzig through 1844, where Mendelssohn led the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1838, it was Robert Schumann who stumbled upon Franz Schubert’s Great Symphony in C. He promptly delivered it to Mendelssohn, who programmed a posthumous revival of the orchestral work. The symphony’s performance inspired Schumann to finally complete his own first symphony. Though he had dabbled with orchestral music throughout his career, he had not yet succeeded in producing a mature symphony.
In early 1941, Schumann sketched out his entire First Symphony in B-flat, op. 38, in just four days. In the shared journal he and Clara kept, she wrote that the work was inspired by a poem written by Adolf Böttger. Böttger’s Frühlinggedicht is quite dark, cursing a cloudy unhappiness, but ends with a hidden hope, “O wende, wende Deinen Lauf / Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf!” (O turn, turn your course / Spring is blooming in the valley!). Given the optimistic tone of Schumann’s symphony, perhaps it was these final lines the composer took to heart. Schumann originally bestowed each movement with a subtitle, “Fruhlings-beginn” (Spring’s Awaking), “Abend” (Evening), “Frohe Gespielen,” (Merry Playmates), and “Voller Frühling” (Height of Spring), but dropped them prior to the first performance. He said he did not want to inhibit the imaginations of listeners. This sentiment was oft made by the man who composed many titled piano character pieces but remained a great champion of absolute music—music for music’s sake. Thus, his later words to conductor Wilhelm Taubert seem ironic: “While playing, could you infuse your orchestra with some spring yearning … I would like to have the first trumpet entry sound as if from on high, like a call to awake … then following of the introduction … everywhere begins to green, a butterfly perhaps even flies up, and in the allegro, how little by little everything comes together that belongs to the spring.” He, however, tempered the image, continuing, “But these are fantasies that come to me after completing the work.” It was Mendelssohn who conducted the symphony’s premiere in March of 1841 to great acclaim, marking a high point in Schumann’s career and legacy.
Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2022
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan
Children’s Corner – Claude Debussy, arr. André Caplet
- Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum
- Jimbo’s Lullaby
- Serenade for the Doll
- The Snow is Dancing
- The Little Shepherd
- Golliwogg’s Cakewalk
More than anyone, Claude Debussy truly was the father of much of the philosophical basis for the complete turnover in musical art that defined the twentieth century. His compositions established entirely new ways of thinking about the fundamental ways of defining and composing music in Western culture. And, along the way, he composed some of the most original, creative and, dare we say, beautiful music in the repertoire. His name, of course, is indelibly linked with what is popularly called “musical impressionism,” a term he deplored, but that doesn’t really specifically tell you much. What you may say is that he largely worked within a musical style that made little use of so many of the characteristics of a musical tradition that dominated the concert halls of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of us are familiar with concepts such as sonata form; development; key relationships; major and minor tonalities, with their respective scales, counterpoint, fugues, and especially “developing” musical ideas in an ongoing linear fashion. As dominant as these procedures were, Debussy saw other ways of creating and working with musical ideas. His specifically French way of looking at things was quite a contrast to the ideas and methods of German composers. Debussy was not much interested in systems of musical composition, wherein each part—large or small—had a rational, expected, and traditional relationship to every other part. Rather, he focused upon listening to musical sounds in new ways—considering them just for their intrinsic sound, and not how they might fit into a hierarchy as a mere building block. He opened up new ways of composing and listening, and the musical world was changed forever.
Children’s Corner was composed between 1906 and 1908 as a suite of six movements for piano solo. It was dedicated to his beloved daughter, Claude-Emma, who was about three when the work was finished. The titles were originally given in English. The suite has long enjoyed success and is in the standard repertoire of solo piano. But three years after its completion and publication, it was arranged for orchestra by Debussy’s close friend, André Caplet. While not a name well known to contemporary American audiences, Caplet was a talented composer—he won the Prix de Rome scholarship award before Ravel achieved that honor—and was the orchestrator of Debussy’s evergreen Clair de lune in the version so beloved by symphony orchestra audiences.
The title of Debussy’s first movement, Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, is a wry reference to a title used for many centuries for instructional books and music. It literally means “steps to Parnassus” and implies the student will ascend in understanding and skill each step up the way to the abode of the Greek gods. A famous set of piano exercises by the indefatigable Carl Czerny (and Muzio Clementi, as well) bore the title, and Debussy composed as his first movement a tongue in cheek (hence, the “Doctor”) reference to one of the familiar, busy finger etudes. There, the comparison ends. Debussy’s ethereal arabesques and washes of sound are from world distinctly remote from pedantic, pragmatic exercises.
Jimbo was an elephant that was a famous resident of the zoo at the historic Jardin des plantes de Paris—the main botanical garden in France. Debussy picturesquely portrayed the ponderous pachyderm beginning with droll double basses. Debussy’s frequent use of pentatonic and whole-tone scales is in much evidence. That being said, it is a rather melancholy picture of life in a zoo for the poor animal.
The third movement, Serenade for the Doll, depicts a Chinese porcelain doll using a stereotypical five-note Chinese musical scale and frequent intervals of a fourth. Moreover, the brisk, light, staccato texture is perfect to depict a presumed allusion to the mincing feminine steps of ethnic caricatures at that time. But, it is withal a cute piece and is a characteristic example of the composer’s penchant for challenging the listener to guess just what key he is in.
The Snow is Dancing is an apt example of Debussy’s gift for painting delicate images in sound, which seem to exist fleetingly only in the moment. The diversion in the middle is based on the familiar whole-tone scale, giving it a kind of “floating” atmosphere.
In The Little Shepherd, we hear the shepherd playing his wind instrument, and there are three distinct episodes. Each brief, meditative solo is followed by a dancing, spritely response with a gentle cadence. The tunes are an apt example of Debussy’s frequent use of modal scales, rather than the traditional major and minor of Western harmonic practice.
The final movement, Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, is perhaps one of the more famous ones and is a cogent example of exquisitely French versions of American popular music. A cakewalk is a dance that was a mainstay of nineteenth century American minstrel shows. The dance is characterized by syncopations and vigorous, strutting rhythms. A “Golliwogg” was a stuffed Black doll dressed in a stereotypical minstrel show garb. It was en vogue at the time (the French loved it) and it was exemplary of the “other” that was a salient aspect of late nineteenth-century European cultural preoccupations. Today this whole phenomenon is appropriately viewed as insensitive and racist. Typical of Debussy’s wry sense of humor is his rather veiled reference to the famous chord from Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde—a bizarre and cheeky juxtaposition if there ever was one. That off-the-wall allusion returns several times in the middle section, played by languorous strings, surrounded by “banjo plucks.”
Those who are not experienced pianists, hearing these delightful works in this remarkably adroit and imaginative version for orchestra, can be forgiven for thinking that Debussy must certainly have conceived them originally for the orchestra. Collectively, they are an elegant tribute to Caplet’s complete mastery of the orchestral “sound” of his close friend.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun – Claude Debussy
Debussy adored painting and poetry, and his deep immersion in those arts is fundamental in searching for meaning in his personal musical style. His æsthetic was rooted in the French nineteenth-century literary movement known as “symbolism.” While many today know and speak glibly of “impressionism,” and associate Debussy with that style in painting, it is with the much less familiar concept of “symbolism,” specifically that in French literature, that informed almost all of his music. Symbolism is traced by most to the poet, Charles Baudelaire, as well as to the imagery and themes of Edgar Allen Poe, whose works in French translation were of great popularity and influence in France. Later, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine were the central figures of the movement, and whose influence on Debussy it would be difficult to overestimate.
Essentially, symbolists were interested in spirituality, dreamlike imprecision, and the indefinite nature of the imagination. They deplored artistic trends of the time that focused on nature, reality, objectivity and the like. The imagery in their poetry was elusive and indirect. Those familiar with movements in the visual arts will find more affinities in the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, than the Impressionists. In the former, a gauzy impression of an object or scene is not the intent, but rather a depiction of something apparently clear in perception but heavily laden with veiled meaning. An evocation of a feeling, rather than an impression was sought. Moreover, symbolist poetry was highly dependent upon the sound of the French language and the possibility of aural ambiguity.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the poetry of Mallarmé. His poem, L’après-midi d’un faune (1876), is the subject of Debussy’s one-movement “tone poem” and is his most recognized work. While the text concerns the awakening of a faun from a drowsy mid-afternoon nap, and his reflections on his memories of his adventures with nymphs that morning, the narrative is not straightforward and linear—and neither is Debussy’s score. A faun, of course, is a creature that is half goat and half man, symbolic in literature of untrammeled natural spirits.The nymphs are young, nubile, free spirits who sing and dance their way to amorous freedom.
A tone poem in the hands of masters such as Liszt, Smetana, and Strauss generally focused on very specific images and the stories behind them. But, this genre in the hands of Debussy (under the influence of the symbolists) approached the text in a much different way. His Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1894), from the immortal opening languid, sensuous flute solo, creates an episodic series of feelings, atmospheres, and reflections rather than a story. The faun, half-dulled by the afternoon heat thinks random thoughts of “. . . enervating swoon of heat, which stifles all fresh dawn’s resistance,” “… girls sleeping, with their reckless arms around each other:” and “…my speechless soul and heavy-laden body succumb at last to noontime’s ceremonial pause.”
For these thoughts and moods Debussy crafted perfect orchestral colors, melodies, and harmonies. While not a follower of Brahms—nor, on the other hand, of Liszt, Wagner, and Strauss, either—Debussy, with this first great success, opened the door to the twentieth century in music, and it was never the same thereafter.
Ge Xu (Antiphony) – Chen Yi
Chen Yi is a remarkable composer who has achieved worldwide acclaim for her many compositions—compositions that seek to reconcile or at least convincingly meld—the disparate musical styles of East and West. Born in Guangzhou, China in 1953, she studied violin early on, practicing surreptitiously with a mute during the privations of the Cultural Revolution. Ultimately, she had to give up music, owing to her impressment into forced agricultural labor in a variety of locations in China. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, she was able to enter the Beijing Conservatory in 1977. Her career as a composer ensued with great success, culminating in a major broadcast concert dedicated entirely to her compositions. She came to the United States in 1986 and studied composition at Columbia University with the distinguished composers, Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky. Thereafter, in 1996, she accepted a position at the Peabody Conservatory, and in 1998 joined the faculty of the University of Missouri at Kansas City. She is the recipient of numerous prestigious fellowships, awards, and prizes, and enjoys performances of her compositions all over the world.
Ge Xu (Antiphony) was commissioned by the Women’s Philharmonic of the Bay Area in San Francisco as part of their “Meet the Composer New Residencies Program.” Composed in 1994 while Chen Yi was in residence with the orchestra, Ge Xu (Antiphony) received its world première in January of the next year. The composer relates her inspiration for the composition: “For celebrating the Chinese lunar New Year or mid-autumn festival, Zhuang minority people in Southern China often gather in the field and sing mountain songs in solo, choir or antiphonal forms. In the antiphonal singing, distinct groups or individuals make up the texts in a style of antithetical couplets, competing with one another. It is this vivid scene that has inspired the composer to write music for keeping spirits high and hope alive.”
Antiphony is simply musical performance that is characterized by the alternation of soloists or musical groups—a time honored style found in most cultures. In Western music it is found as early as mediæval liturgical chant, and memorably in the works of Gabrieli in sixteenth-century Venice. Chen’s study in antiphony divides the orchestral color palette into multiple combinations, variously contrasting or combining them into a remarkable variety of sounds. Throughout the work we are regaled with creative and novel ways of eliciting non-traditional sounds from the familiar array of orchestral instruments. In addition to the usual special techniques such as string harmonics and muted or stopped brass, at one time or another one will hear strings playing behind the bridge, glissandos in the horns, and cymbals rubbed together or placed on the heads of timpani—to name a few. Extremes of tessitura, layers of completely different rhythms, dense, bombastic—almost chaotic—textures alternating with the most ethereal, delicate soft ones. It’s all part and parcel of Chen’s imaginative creation of antiphonal sounds.
Beginning with a soft, high, unaccompanied violin gesture soon joined by a Debussy-like sonority of harp, horns, and soft percussion, dense woodwind rhythms and stentorian brass soon add their contrasting layers. A faster dance-like section follows—much simpler in rhythm, but with an amazing paroxysm of challenging and contrasting activity in the low strings. It all ends in a dramatic cadenza for the percussion section. The percussion continues, soon joined by unusual sounds from the strings, with a dense cloud of complex woodwind activity floating above it all. The dance-like section grows out of all of this to take us to the conclusion. It’s abruptly soft, with the ethereal textures of the very beginning. A solo bassoon plaintively recalls the opening violin gesture, but now a half step lower.
Symphony no. 1, “Spring” – Robert Schumann
Schumann composed in almost all of the common genres, and notwithstanding his success in the larger forms, did perhaps his most respected work in song and piano literature. Known—at least during his lifetime—almost as much for his distinguished career as music critic and essayist, even today his analyses and commentaries lend valuable insights into the music of his milieu and times. He was a formidable pianist—his wife, Clara, even more so—and his contributions to the piano stand with those of Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms in artistic significance.
Schumann was a Romantic to the core, yet, withal, he had great respect for clarity, balance, and formal integrity so characteristic of the music of Classicism. It must be admitted, however, that to some degree his deep passions and emotional self-indulgences can be seen as aspects of a personality that ultimately broke down in the psychoses and pathologies that led to his early death in an institution. He was happy early on, however, and the years of his early marriage brought forth masterworks in spates, as his mind focused extraordinarily in narrow directions. Up to the time of his marriage to Clara he had composed exclusively music for the piano, a great corpus of work that is one of the century’s important contributions to the literature for the instrument. The joy and exuberance upon his marriage in 1840 led to a remarkable outpouring of songs—some 125 in that year alone.
In addition, Schumann made important contributions to chamber and symphonic music. His four symphonies are respected contributions to orchestral literature. At Clara’s enthusiastic encouragement he turned his talents to the genre the very next year after the remarkable production of Lieder in 1840. His first two symphonies—No. 1 in Bb Major “Spring” and No. 4 in D Minor (it’s complicated—don’t ask) were the result, and the first is an especially exuberant celebration of the joy and optimism of that period—not at all prescient of the dark and tragic end to his life.
One of the misleading aspects of the popularity of many classic and romantic works is the proclivity of fans to bestow nicknames on them of dubious authenticity or even appropriateness. Probably no composer has suffered more in this respect than, say, Haydn, but there are many others. But in the case of Schumann’s first symphony, the composer himself is the source of the appellation, “Spring.” As a great composer of Lieder, he knew much poetry, and a poem is the inspiration for Schumann’s communicated thoughts on the mood and nature of the symphony so named.
Schumann composed the work quickly during late January and February of 1841, and its première took place the next month. The poetic inspiration of “spring” is generally taken to be by Adolf Böttger, entitled Frühlingsgedicht (poem of spring) and full of inspiring, energetic paeans to the season. Indeed, the first movement opens with a dramatic fanfare by the trumpets summoning spring’s awakening. And that interpretation is on record by the composer. Schumann also wrote that, later in the introduction, the music should suggest the greening of the world and butterflies in the air. The ensuring allegro he said should depict spring coming alive. Well, that’s pretty specific, and fits the music fine. After the dramatic, slow introduction, the main theme of the allegro is easily discerned, as is the somewhat more relaxed subordinate theme. In the development, the latter is completely absent, the composer choosing to work over the first one, alone. The recapitulation is announced by the dramatic fanfare of the opening, and interesting enough, Schumann introduces a completely new theme at the very end of the work, near the end of the coda—a striking bit of originality by a true German romantic!
The second movement (originally entitled “Evening,” but later withdrawn) is simple in form, and perhaps best heard simply as an extended song for orchestra. Schumann was one of the giants of German Lieder, who had just finished his “wonder year” of song composition, and the metaphor is completely apt. Schumann’s gift for melody and rich romantic harmonies comes strongly to the fore here. Of interest are the numerous trills in the orchestral parts—a bit unusual, and more typical of the piano music of the time—think Chopin. Schumann, of course, was a gifted pianist and composer of piano music, so, it shouldn’t surprise. Finally, noteworthy is the short solo for the trombone section at the very end. It seems to come out of nowhere, and its rather dark chromaticism casts an ambiguous tone to the mood. It eerily foretells a similar use of the instruments in his third symphony. But more specifically, it anticipates the main theme of the following scherzo.
The third movement is the usual dance-like diversion, but Schumann extends the form with two trios instead of the usual single diversion in the middle. Furthermore, all of the main sections are divided into two contrasting segments, so there are many different ideas to keep track of. But it’s not necessary to keep track. A few interesting points, though: the first section starts with a vigorous, somewhat syncopated affair in the minor mode, followed by a more cheerful response. The following Trio I is a nothing more than an active call-and-response antiphonal dance in two rather than the traditional three beats. Schumann builds it out of the shortest of ideas—essentially two notes! After a return of the opening, Trio II kicks even more vigorously, built on simple scales and displaced accents. Finally, after an abbreviated recap of the opening, there is a rather curious coda that ends it all with in a most tranquil, peaceful mood, but with a little zippy tag worthy of Berlioz.
A bold, ascending scale in broad notes announces the last movement—it will be important—followed by a complementary idea whose dancing rhythm is almost balletic. Collectively they are the main ideas of the movement. After a bit we encounter the second “theme,” but later it is not given much shrift—we’ll hear little of it. But, for the record, it is vaguely redolent of Mendelssohn in its airy lightness (but made interesting with a hint of the opening broad scale, this time in minor). In typical romantic fashion, Schumann develops only the first idea (both parts) and ignores the Mendelssohn-like idea. In a creative twist, a leisurely soft passage featuring solo oboe, horns, and flute announces the recapitulation—in the best Parisian opera orchestra fashion of the times.
The race to the end is exuberant and its vivacity is completely characteristic of Schumann at the peak of his happiness—both in his artistry and his marriage. Nowhere is a hint of his forthcoming tragic days. It is indeed spring.
Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2022