Schumann’s Spring Symphony
In 1841, Robert Schumann’s famous Spring Symphony opens with a lonely and pensive call from both trumpet and horn – the same melodic line is subsequently taken up by the full orchestra and harmonised in a forthright and assertive manner.
Quickly, the music direction darts into a new direction – furtive, minor key – as if to suggest that spring is not quite yet upon us. The buds are perhaps not ready to burst forth in all their glory.
We hear short, sharp snatches of the original melody which was so gloriously harmonised in the opening bars. The woodwinds take gentle command and at length, slowly and carefully consider the most optimal path forward.
There are echoes here of the long and drawn out exposition of Beethoven’s 4th symphony – intriguingly written in the same key.
It takes around 2 and a half minutes for the music to swell up into a determined and decisive direction of travel and when it comes, it’s an aggressive Bb major reinstatement.
The 2nd subject presents a newfound confidence and swagger – the trees are certainly in full bloom, the flowers are making their appearance and people are emerging from their winter confinement for sunshine strolls.
Schumann when writing this symphony originally put forward suggested titles for each of his movements but later changed his mind, suggesting that it was better to leave it up to his audiences to decide for themselves what pictures came to mind.
After a slower paced start, we are in a new and energetic mode – the timpani providing an underlying accent in places.
The music carries forward culminating in triumphant Bb major conclusions before finding a new path after approximately 6 minutes. Muscular strings converse with more pensive woodwinds whilst the harmony shifts gradually toward a new horizon.
This suspenseful interplay continues for some time, until we eventually arrive back at our opening Bb major theme – languorous pauses allow us to pause awhile, considering those weighty opening chords. The rest is only temporary and Schumann returns to the graceful interplay before long, this time venturing into shifting keys.
A sense of anticipation begins to emanate from this final section as we travel inexorably toward the close of the 1st movement. This swells into a lush statement for full orchestra, sounding akin to a chorale. The music becomes slower and slower until a slumbering flute tries to rouse the entire orchestra – it succeeds in awakening the ensemble. The trumpets punctuate the air with military-like fanfare and the orchestra come together to deliver a decisive summation in Bb major.
The Larghetto (2nd movement) is a hauntingly beautiful piece of music – delicate and romantic and lasting just under 7 minutes in total.
It is easy to imagine that the composer had in mind his wife Clara Schumann whilst creating this music. In fact, the gradual maturation of his compositional ability over the preceding years had been remarkable – up until 1839, he had written almost exclusively for solo piano, 1840 (when he had finally overcome all obstacles and succeeded in marrying Clara) had become his year of song and then one year later, he created this full work for symphonic orchestra.
A great deal of inspiration was clearly pouring out of him. There is another Beethovenian echo in the middle of the Larghetto which recalls the funereal march from the Eroica. The anxious violins demand to be heard, before a calmer interjection stills the worry and resumes the romantic discourse.
Whilst this is not a particularly long movement, a great deal is relayed to the listener and deep reserves of emotion are articulated; the whole thing feels just right in terms of length and exposition.
There is something deliciously macabre and grotesque about the character of the Scherzo. It brings to mind some dark, frightening character from a play or novel. There is something unmistakably crepuscular about the harmony and the melody. Even the introspective, wandering counter theme with which it alternates with offers little consolation.
It is well documented that Schumann suffered throughout his life with depressive episodes, carrying around with him a particular fear of asylums, insanity and death. It is particularly sad to know that in a cruel twist of fate, he ultimately ended up and died in an asylum.
Although the Italian word “Scherzo” is taken in a musical sense to mean a joke or light piece of music, on this occasion the music in question does not feel particularly light.
The outer sections do offer a slightly less intensive mood however and attempt to provide a counterbalance to the main theme.
Perhaps if there is a musical joke inserted within these pages, it arrives in the final minute of the movement as things are winding down – the same theme from the opening is cleverly transformed into a hushed, melody like conclusion. There are definitely shades of what would come later here (most strikingly, cues that would be taken up by Edward Elgar in his symphonic writing.)
The final movement begins with tremendous energy – an exultant, Wagnerian statement of intent. Again, there is a nod to Beethoven’s Eroica here.
Without delay, Schumann proceeds directly into the first subject. The tonic key of Bb major is quickly asserted. Prominent use is made of the timpani in this final movement.
Thematic motifs which will be repeated throughout start to be heard across the score. A new 2nd subject appears shortly which is a direct quote taken from Schumann’s own Kreisleriana work of 1838.
Tension builds and is subsequently offset with grandiose statements made by full orchestra.
The first subject eases its way back in and the music repeats itself before branching out in a new direction after approximately 4 minutes. The woodwinds take up the melody from here in what is a somewhat thoughtful and reflective section of the movement. Tremolo strings gradually increase in volume and Schumann shifts harmonies around. Intriguingly, we are suddenly left with solo horns sounding almost as though they are improvising or trying to find a new way through the confusion.
Like tweeting birds, the woodwinds manage to find a way back to the procession of earlier.
The first subject again carries us back on the path toward the final statement and those familiar motifs in the violins can be heard once again. An unexpected slam of the timpani changes key and we are reminded of that quote from the Kreisleriana.
There is a feeling of growing inevitability and we are swept toward the conclusion. All sections of the orchestra are each given a voice, and all contribute toward the swelling expectation. A trombone calls out (a sure sign in a 19th century symphony of an approach to the finishing line) and is answered sonorously by a trumpet. Like an excited child on Christmas morning, the music is expertly moved onto a secure footing and Schumann makes terrific use of the timpani to underline what is a triumphant and decisive victory – Spring has truly arrived and winter has been banished. Bravo!