Monday, July 30, 2007

Reading Schumann's 1st

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was another highly significant figure in the history of Romantic music, alongside his close associate Mendelssohn. Hampered by a hand injury from pursuing his career as a pianist, Schumann concentrated on composing, writing and editing a journal of music criticism, and championing the music of others. He helped revive the music of Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, and gave a boost to composers of his time such as Berlioz, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. At the same time, he was unsparing in his hostility toward Wagner and Liszt - in which positions he was increasingly in the minority.

Many of Schumann's piano compositions were written for his wife Clara, a brilliant pianist in her own right, who continued to support Brahms and other musical artists after Robert's mental deterioration (he apparently suffered from siphylis, mercury poisoning and bipolar disorder, poor lamb) and his early death. Besides his legacy as a father of modern music criticism, Schumann left behind an impressive body of music, including numerous songs, priceless concertos for piano and cello, tons of piano pieces, and four significant symphonies. He also discovered Schubert's Great C Major symphony (though Mendelssohn conducted its premiere) and the talent of a youngster named Johannes Brahms. So we have a lot to thank Schumann for.

Let's begin by giving thanks for Schumann's 1st Symphony in B-flat, known as the "Spring Symphony." He wrote it in 1841, the year after he married Clara in the very epitome of the Romantic Love Story. The first movement has an abundance of rhythmic energy and charming musical ideas. It begins with a horn call that opens up a slow introduction with a bucolic atmosphere. This leads to an exuberant sonata whose first theme is based on that opening horn call. Schumann breaks this theme into motivic fragments and builds them up to triumphant ejaculations, before subsiding into a more subdued, second theme introduced by the clarinet. The development is based, again, on fragments of the first theme, plus a countermelody first heard on the oboe. Finally Schumann ushers in an accelerating coda sparkling with the sound of a triangle, until a broader theme brings the movement to a majestic close.

Movement II is a set of double variations in ABABA form. The first theme is tender, dignified, almost reverent, like a musical picture of a woman of ideal beauty and virtue (any guess as to who?). This contrasts with a brighter, more tonally adventurous theme. The first theme comes back for a variation in which the cellos take the melody; then a varying B section builds up to a final variation in which the oboes have the theme over increased activity in the strings. The rest of the movement is extended "wrapping-up music," including a wistful horn passage and an ending that softly dies away.

Movement III is a typical Schumann scherzo: that is, it has two trios, blurring the line between a scherzo and a rondo. The main scherzo theme is unusually serious, a minor-key tune with touches of chromaticism. The second part of the scherzo (remember that old rounded-binary form?) begins with more carefree material shared between the clarinet and flute, before the heavier stuff returns. The first trio is a lively little number with repeated notes reminiscient of the first theme of Movement I. This briefly shows signs of developing into a full-blown Schumannesque theme, but it hasn't got the room to do it properly before the scherzo proper returns. After this second scherzo comes a second trio, faster and more agitated than the first, but with a joyful ending. The scherzo returns a final time, slowing down as it goes into its second part and coming to a soft, languid end.

Movement IV, by contrast, announces itself with a big, loud opening. Then a cheerful, chatty theme appears, during which one is free to visualize chirping birds, chattering squirrels, and leaf-laden bows shaking in the breeze. Schumann then delivers a remarkable display of musical logic (though it wasn't the first of its kind; one sees something of its sort, for example, in the finale of Schubert's Great C Major symphony). What am I talking about? I'm talking about the transition passage between the first and second themes - the minor-key bit with soft statements alternating with loud ones - which qualifies as a "transition" not only in the sense of moving from the key-area of the first theme to that of the second, but also by presenting material that foreshadows and, as it were, blossoms into the second theme.

This isn't the only work in which Schumann creates a sense of one musical idea evolving into another; for another example, listen to the first movement of his Piano Concerto. But not yet; first, listen to the rest of this movement! Theme 2, in a rather unusual contrast to Theme 1, is more emphatic and strongly marked, though it also appears in a gentler guise (led by the clarinet). The mysterious-sounding development section is tied together by fragments of the first theme, building intensity until a short, candenza-like passage in which the music seems to stand still. First the horn, then the flute extend the cadence, creating a feeling of expectancy that is finally fulfilled when the recap arrives with its return of the madcap first theme. Finally, Schumann wraps up the movement and the symphony with an accelerating coda that uses motives from the second theme to build up to a triumphant close.

What a wealth of musical ideas! What a lively display of youthful passion and promise! What a natural-sounding, tight-built, clean-lined structure! If only everybody's First Symphony carried itself with such easy-going confidence! To borrow a line from Schumann himself: "Hats off, gentlemen: a genius!"

IMAGES: Robert Schumann; Clara Schumann; Robert composing his Dichterliebe (a song cycle); an engraving showing Robert and Clara together. I like this last image a lot; click on the thumbnail for a closer look. EDIT: I would love to put a video of a live performance of at least one full movement of this symphony here, but for the life of me I can't find one!!!

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

Schumann and Schubert -- the music of my youth!!! (That was what you got when you were at the ballet studio six days a week)!