Tuesday, December 06, 2005


Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 (Spring), Bb, Op.38

Of Schumann's Symphonies, the first one, in Bb, Op.38, was written early in 1841, and it is said that he himself called it the Spring Symphony. Whether this is the case, or whether the name was suggested and applied to it by some poetically-minded admirer, is not positive. But it is certain that this title is singularly appropriate, for the whole work exhales the fresh, crisp, now exhilarating, and again balmy, breath of springtime. It is scored for large orchestra, including trombones. In point of structure it is the most nearly perfect of his Symphonies.

The first Movement has a fairly extended Introduction, devoted to more or less pointed allusions to the chief Theme of the Allegro. In its present form it opens with an intonation of the thematic phrase (by the trumpets and horns), but pitched a third higher than the original draft. Schumann was constrained to alter the pitch in this manner, because of the decidedly awkward effect of the original tones upon the "natural" brass instruments then in vogue---not yet supplied with the valves that equalized the entire scale. The change in pitch is generally regarded as deplorable, and nowadays can easily be rectified.

The form (sonata-allegro) is regular; the Recapitulation begins with a magnified version of the first thematic phrase, with thrilling effect. But the greater part of the Coda consists in a wholly new motive, in quieter rhythm, of fine harmonic and melodic character, distinctly Schumannesque in conception. There is no conceivable structure justification for this new factor; it is due to a purely romantic impulse; in a Beethoven Symphony it would be unthinkable. But in itself it is lovely enough to supply its own excuse.

The second Movement is an exceedingly beautiful lyric creation, serene but impressive. The design is concise, and resembles a miniature Second Rondo-form. Each of the two alternating subordinate Themes is scarcely more than a melodic fragment, though enough to indicate a Digression. Upon its first recurrence, the principal Theme is transposed. The first subordinate Motive extends from measure twenty-five to forty; the second suborndinate Motive from measure fifty-five to seventy-four. To the Coda an extra Section is appended, which (in trombones and bassoons) anticipates the chief motive of the following Movement; thus, the second and third Movements are connected.

For the third Movement, Schumann follows Beethoven's lead and adopts the Scherzo type. It is an extremely broad Movement, and is further enlarged by the addition of a second Trio and another (this last time abbreviated) da capo. The first Trio provides an unusual degree of contrast, in its alternating meter and its buoyant swing, to the splendid vigor of the rest.

The Finale is one of the most exultant, irresistibly cheery, vivacious Movements in symphonic literature; and the design (sonata-allegro) is finely drawn. It opens with an introductory Phrase, apparently independent, but later interwoven with the rest in a most significant manner: it becomes the second Phrase of the subordinate Theme, and its rhythmic form gives birth to the first Codetta, besides dominating the Development and the entire Coda. There is a noteworthy parallelism between the two chief Themes, somewhat similar to the plan of the slow Movement in the Scotch Symphony of Mendelssohn; i.e. the Second Part of the subordinate Theme is derived almost literally from the First Part of the principal one.

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