Symphony no. 1 in B-flat,

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

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

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

Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the concert Intense, Playful & Serene at the Lincoln Center, May 2022.

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