Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856)
Symphony No 1 in B-flat, Op 38 ‘Spring’ (1841)
Andante un poco maestoso - Allegro molto vivace
Scherzo - Molto vivace
Allegro animato e grazioso
Schumann was an impulsive, obsessive man and as a composer that manifested itself in the way he focused on one genre after another. For many years he wrote little more than piano music; then suddenly he had a great year of song, 1840-41, during which he wrote most of his vocal music and all of his great song-cycles. In 1841 he turned to the symphony and in the space of twelve months produced three works which were to become his first and fourth symphonies and a quasi-symphony called Prelude, Scherzo and Finale – a sort of symphony without a slow movement. The Fourth Symphony and the Prelude, Scherzo and Finale would later be revised - for better or worse is still a matter of debate – but the first symphony, the ‘Spring’ has all the energy of certainty about it. Schumann dashed it down in outline over just four days in January 1841, and completed it not long after. Perhaps he knew so clearly what he wanted to achieve because as a music critic, he had long reflected on other composers’ efforts. Here is a particularly revealing passage - part of an iffy review he gave of a symphony by Gottfried Preyer which had won a competition:
“Sometimes I wish that a young composer might give us, just once, a light merry symphony, in a major key, without trombones and doubled horns. But then, of course, that is even more difficult...”
He did not entirely follow his own advice in the ‘Spring’ Symphony - there are trombones and horns - but it is in a major key, full of energy and merriment, and notably lacking in the kind of worthy ‘great’ musical thought he had found distressing in Preyer’s work.
The title is drawn from a line by the German Romantic poet, Böttger: “Im Tale zieht der frühling auf” (“In the valley, spring approaches”). Schumann wanted the orchestra to play with all the freshness and yearning of new growth: to capture the excitement and relief at the end of winter. Originally, he gave all the movements poetic titles, but withdrew them later, having decided that Berlioz was wrong to tell a story too literally in his Symphonie Fantastique and that a symphony should be able to communicate its ideas without subtitles. Perhaps, at the back of his mind, there was also the risk of provoking too close a comparison to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. With or without subtitles, it is plain that the opening movement is very much an awakening - the trumpets give a call to which all respond - and that the flow of invention culminates in ‘High Spring’ in the finale.
© Svend Brown
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto in C major, K503 (1786)
Of all Mozart’s piano concertos, this is the biggest, grandest, most sonorous. Separating itself from the tragic manner of its immediate predecessor in C minor, K491, it represents the C major summit of the 30-year-old composer's Viennese style. The two piano concertos that were still to come sound in comparison more like transitional works leading who knows where. All that can be said of them is that the so-called Coronation Concerto, K537, contains ornate and glittering foretastes of Chopin and that the poignant, intimate B flat major, K595, predicts a new purification of his style.
If the great C major concerto - the last of four in that key - anticipates anybody, it is usually said to be Beethoven, particularly the Beethoven of the C major and C minor (Nos 1 and 3) piano concertos, which employ similar march rhythms, punchy chords, sharp contrasts between major and minor. Yet to perform Mozart’s concerto as if it were Beethoven would be a serious mistake. The music is Mozart through and through, in spite of its use (not for the first time) of martial trumpets and drums, and, in the first movement, blocks of chords rather than flowing lines. Perhaps the sheer scale of the music has slightly acted against its popularity. Eric Blom damaged the cause of this concerto by calling it "‘frigid and unoriginal" in his long-established Master Musician study of the composer. Donald Francis Tovey and Charles Rosen, on the other hand, deemed it worthy of the deepest, most appreciative analysis.
It is a masterpiece not only magisterial but moving – broad and splendid, yet keenly detailed, in the first movement; touchingly chaste in the operatic sweetness of the slow movement, with its huge, expressively vocal leaps in the solo part; and filled with gleams and shadows in the animated gavotte-like finale. Yet this is not, on the whole, one of Mozart's most obviously operatic concertos. Its Beethovenian anticipations are quite conspicuous. Even the predominant four-note rhythm of the first movement was to be employed by Beethoven in the first movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and, more strenuously, in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony.
It is in the final rondo, however, that we encounter the work's most magical moment, for here, amid all the Mozartian wit, the music is suddenly filled for a page or two with a wistful sense of life's fragile beauty and transitoriness. It’s a passage which, once identified by the listener, always stands out. First, after a few brisk chords from the orchestra, the piano quite unemphatically plays a flowing phrase, answered by the woodwind. Then the piano extends the phrase, and the woodwind extend the repetition. That is all. There is no more to it than that. The phrase never returns. But Mozart wrote nothing better, lovelier, or more piercing in its combination of joy and sadness than this brief aside, confirming things - the tiny sighs amid the big declamations of the first movement, the melancholy behind the descending notes of the andante - that have been only hinted at earlier in the concerto.
© Conrad Wilson
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony no 4 in D minor, Op 120 (revised version, 1851)
1. Ziemlich langsam – lehaft –
2. Romanze. Ziemlich langsam –
3. Scherzo. Lebhaft –
4. Langsam – lebhaft
In 1838, during a visit to Vienna, Schumann discovered the autograph score of Schubert’s Symphony no 9, the so-called ‘Great’ C major Symphony, neglected and still unperformed. The discovery made him “tingle to be at work on a symphony”. Up until 1840 he composed little but solo piano music. His long-delayed marriage to Clara Wieck that year coincided with a torrent of song-writing, and 1841 saw him devote himself, with equal single-mindedness, to orchestral music.
The D minor Symphony was intended as a present for Clara’s birthday on 13 September. In March he noted in his diary his intention to write a ‘Clara’ symphony: “in it I will paint her picture with flutes and oboes and harps.” Together with the overture, scherzo and finale, the D minor Symphony was first performed in Leipzig in December, but it was given a cool reception, prompting Schumann to withdraw the work.
Ten years later he revised and re-scored it. At first he called the new version Symphonic fantasy, but changed the title back to ‘Symphony’ before the first performance in March 1853, giving it the number by which we know it today. He also added repeat indications to the opening sections of the first movement allegro and the finale, and replaced the original Italian movement headings with German ones.
In its final form Symphony no 4 is Schumann’s most concentrated attempt at welding a multi-movement work into a unified whole. Themes recur across all four movements, which follow one another without breaks. The most important of the 1851 revisions are aimed at strengthening the links between the movements, smoothing the transition from the introduction into the first movement and from the scherzo into the finale. The other major difference is that the 1851 orchestration is thicker and heavier. Schumann erred on the side of caution in making sure that every important instrumental entry was covered as securely as possible but Brahms, for one, preferred the lighter scoring of the first version. There are gains and losses in both scores – the original’s clarity of orchestration against the more compelling sense of unity in the later version – and now that the original is being played more frequently it seems likely that the two will simply coexist side-by-side.
The slow introduction is based on a gently falling and rising idea out of which an upwardly arching little phrase for the violins coalesces, as the tempo quickens, into the bustling theme of the main section of the movement. The opening section of the allegro is marked to be repeated in the 1851, but not the 1841, score. Two contrasting ideas appear a little later: a tautly rhythmic theme for woodwind, and a smoother song-like melody for violins answered by oboe and clarinet.
The slow movement begins with an expressive melody for oboe and cellos. The music of the first movement’s introduction returns, leading to the central section, based on a new theme, lazily floating downwards on solo violin. The oboe/cello melody, now joined by bassoon, closes the movement.
The fiery, vigorous scherzo includes a central trio section which brings back the solo violin music from the second movement in a new rhythm. This comes round again at the end of the movement, settling on a gently rocking figure, out of which the finale begins to emerge, with music familiar from the transition to the first movement. Gradually the tension builds, the pace quickens, and after a dramatic pause a new version of the first movement’s energetic woodwind theme launches the finale. This exultant music is Schumann at his most celebratory. It accumulates irresistible energy and drive, swept along on a rhythmically propulsive current which twice accelerates towards the end to carry the symphony to its triumphant conclusion.
© Mike Wheeler
Symphonies preoccupied Schumann throughout his 30s; the first took just four days to be born, others cost him years of effort. Principal Conductor Robin Ticciati directs the first in a two concert series exploring Schumann’s Symphonies, concentrating on the exuberant first symphony ‘Spring’ and the atmospheric and inventive fourth symphony. British pianist Paul Lewis completes the programme with a piano concerto by one of the composers Schuman admired most: Mozart.
Schumann once wrote: “Music — so different from painting — is the art which we enjoy most in company with others.” Come and share in what promises to be one of the highlights of the Season.
SCO Corporate Friend, Key Player, will be exhibiting Yamama Clavinova digitial pianos in the foyer from 6.30pm before the concert and during the interval.