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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony in G minor ‘Zwickau’
Moderato – allegro
Andantino quasi allegretto – Intermezzo quasi scherzo
Allegro assai – Andantino
The first of Schumann’s mature, numbered symphonies – the ‘Spring’ Symphony in B-flat – dates from 1841, the year in which he made a determined effort to get to grips with writing for orchestra. But it wasn’t his first attempt at symphony. After completing a piano quintet in 1829 he put it to one side, intending to re-work it in orchestral form. That idea came to nothing, but three years later he began work on a symphony in G minor. He completed only the first two movements, in May 1833, leaving only sketches for a third and fourth.
The first movement was performed in Schumann’s home town of Zwickau, Saxony, in November 1833. He hoped it would establish his name and, on a more personal note, justify to his friends and family his decision to abandon his law studies for music. The audience, though, failed to understand the work. Two more performances followed, neither of them any more successful than the first. At this stage of his career, Schumann, on his own admission, found orchestration difficult. Writing to the publisher Theodor Hofmeister a month after the Zwickau performance he commented: “I often put in yellow instead of blue; but I consider this art so difficult that it will take long years of study to gain certainty and self-control.” He put the symphony to one side, and it was only in 1972 that the score was eventually published.
The brief introduction to the first movement hints at the first main theme of the allegro, which then cuts in abruptly with a crisp pair of chords launching a movement of considerable energy. The music clearly owes much to Schumann’s admiration for Beethoven's symphonies, which he studied avidly. There are also signs of his own musical personality, not least in matters of form, as when the recapitulation – the climactic moment when the opening music of the allegro returns – is heralded by a glance back at the introduction.
Structural devices such as that suggest early stirrings of a concern for the overall unity of a multi-movement work that would increasingly dominate Schumann’s large-scale symphonic thinking in the years to come. This concern emerges again in the moderately-paced second movement. As the opening section draws to a close there are brief phrases for solo flute and oboe which then turn into the main melodic idea of the frisky, scherzo-like central section. A seamless transition takes us back to the opening music, and the movement ends in an unexpectedly portentous manner.
© Mike Wheeler