Ah, the Rhine! I've seen it. In fact, I rode a train up and down it between Düsseldorf and Mainz in the summer of 1992, enjoying the sight of castles, cathedrals, vineyards, and boats on the river. I particularly remember one charming castle on an island between two steep, grape-vine carpeted banks. It was the coolest train ride I have ever taken, though that isn't saying much.
When I want to look at musical postcard and reminisce over my scenic Rhine experience, I pull out a recording of Robert Schumann's Third Symphony in E-flat major, titled the "Rhenish" Symphony. Rhenish means "of or pertaining to the Rhineland region of Germany," the wine-growing region along the Rhine river. Schumann moved there in the fall of 1850, taking over as musical director of an important Düsseldorf orchestra and beginning one of the happiest and most productive phases of his short and troubled life. By the end of the year he had written a cello concerto, numerous songs, and portions of an oratorio based on Goethe's Faust - plus this symphony, named after the region that had revived his spirits, and inspired by a boat trip on the river. Sadly, it was also the Rhine in which Schumann tried to drown himself four years later, before spending the last two years of his life in a sanitarium.
Now do I have your attention? Excellent. Let's see what Schumann's third musical novel says about the Rhine. Even if it shows few if any signs of the psychosis that had already begun to afflict the composer in 1850, it is at least associated with a great tragedy in art. We can be grateful Schumann had time enough, and at least a temporary relief of his sufferings, so as to write this memorable symphony - and we can enjoy a nice, oozy wallow in regret as we think of the masterpieces he might have written, had he kept body and mind together longer.
The first surprise about Schumann's Third is that, even though he wrote four symphonies, this was really the last original symphony he completed. The Fourth, written even before the Second Symphony, was only published in 1851 after extensive revisions; some have argued that the original, 1841 version is better. So the Third is "really" Schumann's Fourth; and, like the 1851 version of the Fourth, it has five movements rather than the customary four. There are hints in the music that Schumann originally meant to combine the last two movements into one, but he apparently decided to develop them separately. (Don't worry; the last three movements are all relatively short, so the symphony as a whole does not run over-long.)
Another long-held convention Schumann broke was the habit, even among German composers, of heading his movements with Italian terms. The Rhenish - appropriately for a work that celebrates the German heartland - has German movement-titles, a precedent that many later German and Austrian composers (e.g., Mahler) followed. Finally, though Schumann wasn't the first to do this, he makes the Scherzo the second movement (rather than the slow movement).
Movement I is marked Lebhaft, which means "lively" or, in the Italian lingo musicians understand, Vivace. The main theme is a surging, swinging melody energized by hemiolas (changing rhythmic patterns) and syncopations (simultaneous, contrasting rhythms) between the melody and accompaniment. This theme dominates nearly all of the exposition, though a gentler secondary theme does make a couple of brief appearances. Perhaps owing to my long-ago trip along the Rhine, I tend to associate this this music with rolling hills clothed with robust farmland and stately buildings. At the end of the development, the four horns make a dramatic statement in unison that crystallizes this movement's tribute to the strong and vital character of the Rhenish countryside.
Movement II, Sehr mäßig ("very moderately," or in orthodox terms molto moderato) is, as I mentioned before, the Scherzo of this symphony, and it is the one that always reminds me of the feel of water moving up and down beneath a boat's deck. Set in the brighter key of C, it begins like a leisurely pleasure-cruise on a sunlit day. The texture gets busier with the introduction of a countertheme. Then the horns introduce a noble theme in which the choppy motion of the water recedes into the background, as if you were so busy drinking in the grandeur of the countryside, the castles and the sky, that the threat of seasickness receded. The original theme returns, and Schumann elaborates on it in several ways, building up to an exhilirating climax ending with another unison horn statement, before the movement gently dies away.
Movement III, Nicht schnell (do you really need help with that one?) is where you would expect to find the slow movement, at least in view of the second movement being a scherzo. Nevertheless it isn't very slow (though, to be sure, it is "not fast"). It is a relaxed, mellow piece that seems to chuckle with pleasure. Perhaps it would put us all to sleep if it lasted more than five minutes; the fact that it doesn't bears witness to Schumann's tasteful judgment. No, it doesn't excite the passions, but don't they get at least as much excitement as they need these days? So just sit back and savor the subtle play of tone colors, the idyllic mood, the effortlessly charming organization of ideas, the rustle of leaves in a light breeze, and the play of soft shadows and sunlight.
Movement IV is, as it happens, the real slow movement. Its tempo marking is Feierlich, which contrary to anglophone expectations means not "fiery" but "solemn." Inspired by a church service Schumann attended at which the local archbishop was consecrated as a cardinal, it captures a timeless movement of awful splendor in a special type of musical portrait: a Romantic portrait of a Gothic cathedral, harking ahead to the ribbed vaults of Bruckner's slow movements.
And finally, Movement V (Lebhaft again) returns us to the E-flat major tonic, overflowing with one exuberant tune after another. If you have the sound of this movement well in your head, you can probably spot any piece by Schumann within seconds - a helpful trick when it comes to my favorite game of "Name That Composer," though a certain Max Bruch can sometimes fool you. (No composer is truly "inimitable." Bruch proved this in Schumann's case.) If I tried to put into words what makes this movement sound "like Schumann all over," I could probably manage it in a boringly technical 20-page essay; which just shows how something can make perfect sense without being reducible to simple, verbal terms. Let's make a compromise: when I say "Schumannesque," remember this music with its warm, well-rounded chord-voicings, its jumpy little accents, its playful little background details, its sudden bold gestures, its cheerful sweetness made more interesting by unexpected harmonic diversions, its way of letting one theme evolve into another, the horns' chorale-like passage (late in the game) that harks back to the previous movement, and the accelerating coda that wraps up the symphony with a joyful flourish.
This symphony is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I first "read" it, and afterward re-read it many times, from age 10 or 11 on. It was part of a set of classical works on vinyl LPs that I wore out during a rough patch in my childhood, and it brought immense comfort. It's possible, but unlikely, that a year has passed in the last quarter-century when I didn't listen to Rhenish at least once; and it is always a pleasure to hear, the kind of piece one can know well without tiring of it.
Compare that to how many times I have re-read, say, The Lord of the Rings, which I first discovered at about the same age. When I re-read it at the time of the Peter Jackson film, I couldn't remember ever having read most of it. Perhaps if I could have gotten through the whole thing in half an hour, I would have read it more often. There's another reason to read a good symphony like this - and often! [IMAGES: Castles and monuments along the Rhine; a photo of Robert and Clara Schumann]
EDIT: Here is a lovely account of the reverent 4th movement of this symphony, with Paavo Järvi conducting a Japanese orchestra: