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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op 52
Overture, Scherzo and Finale was completed in 1841, a year which saw Schumann focus in an unusually concentrated way on composing orchestral music, just as the previous year had seen a torrent of song-writing, and as 1842 would be his ‘chamber-music year’. It is a lighter-weight work than any of his four symphonies. He tried a number of titles – ‘Suite’, ‘Symphonette’, even ‘Second Symphony’ – before settling on the precise and unassuming title by which it is now known. He stressed the work’s “light, friendly character”, describing it to Clara as “tender, merry… siren-like”, and even suggested that the movements could be played separately.
If this suggests a degree of indecision on Schumann’s part as to how to approach the work, then it was an uncertainty shared by the audience at the first performance, given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in December 1841. Schumann put their reaction down to the difficulty of absorbing so much of his music in one evening – the premiere of the D minor Symphony was also on the programme – together with their missing Mendelssohn’s firm conducting.
In fact they were simply bemused by what appeared to be an attempt at a symphony, but one which seemed to disregard so many symphonic conventions, not least because it did not have a slow movement.
The Overture opens with a short introduction which contrasts a lyrical arching phrase for the upper strings with a stern descending one for lower strings and bassoons. These two ideas also take their place in the Allegro, which sets off at a brisk trot. The quicker final section introduces a new idea which, with a change of rhythm, becomes the main theme of the Scherzo. This delightfully light and airy piece is twice interrupted by a smoother trio section, and it ends by looking back briefly to the Overture. Schumann’s concern for the overall unity of a multi-movement work, which became almost an obsession in the second version of the D minor Symphony, is already evident.
The fugue which opens the Finale is cut short for a more song-like melody for the violins, and these two themes drive the music forward, broadening out towards the end to provide a celebratory ending to one of Schumann’s most attractive orchestral works.
© Mike Wheeler