Thursday, December 08, 2005


Robert Schumann: Symphony No.3 (Rhenish), Eb major, Op.97

Schumann's last Symphony, in Eb major, Op.97, was written in the later months of 1850, and first performed at Dusseldorf in February, 1851. Although, as explained in the message
Robert Schumann: Symphony No.4, D minor, Op.120
it was the fourth of his Symphonies, it is known as Number III. There is no doubt that Schumann received the incentive to this work from visits in Cologne, and the prospect of the Cathedral of that city, which produced a deep and inspiring impression upon his profoundly romantic, susceptible artistic nature. It is therefore generally designated the Rhenish, or Cologne, Symphony, and no one will question the appropriateness of this title: the broad curving lines of the magnificent Theme with which it opens, are inescapably suggestive of the wide arches of a Gothic structure; and the majestic solemnity of the fourth Movement, the medieval pattern of its sonorous tones (as of an organ), its echoes, and the suggestion of the swingingcensorss, unmistakably reflect some impressive ceremony within the sacred, vaulted edifice.

Four years had passed since the composition of his C major Symphony under the cloud of physical and mental depression, and during this period the deplorable handicap had not been completely removed; the cerebral disorder haunted him constantly. And yet this last Symphony of Schumann's is more lucid in structure, richer in melodic beauty, and more concise in formulation than the one which preceded it, although all but the first of its five Movements are strikingly unconventional or downright irregular. The first Movement is a sonata-allegro without Introduction. The Exposition is regular and clear; the Development is very long, out of proportion of the rest; and it is to some degree impaired in its ultimate Sections by several premature onsets of the principal motive in the original key, which anticipate and weaken the actual Recapitulation, robbing it of its freshness.

[To be sure, Brahms does precisely the same thing in the slow Movement of his Second Symphony, and again in the slow Movement of the Third. All depends, obviously, upon the manner in which such novel and hazardous experiments are made.]

In this Symphony, again, Schumann alters the traditional order of the Movements, and places the Scherzo immediately after the first Allegro. And one may wonder why this second Movement should be called a Scherzo, for neither in its character nor in its tempo does it conform to that type. Its design is very unusual, consisting in a group of Song-forms, all finely interrelated, but strung together arbitrarily, in a fashion quite distinctive with Schumann. One condition of satisfactory form is fulfilled, however, by a final return to, and literal restatement of thprincipalal Part---to which is then added a lengthy and beautiful Coda. Of this Movement, with its warm-hearted, good-natured musical sentiment, Schumann said: "it seemed necessary to give prominence to popular (folk-song) elements, and I believe I succeeded in doing so." This surely applies also to the third and last Movements, which are as "popular" in character as it was possible for Schumann's music to be.

The third Movement, a lovely lyric tone-poem, in moderate tempo, is also unconventional in structural design---best definable as a "group-form," without clear-cut thematic outlines.

The fourth Movement, likewise, is a genuinely Schumannesque series of thematic sentences---another "group form." Schumann placed in the original score the superscription: "In the character of an adjunct to a solemn ceremony," but later erased it, with the remark: "One must not bare one's heart to the people; a general impression of the work of art is better for them, for then at least they make no faulty comparisons."

The Finale, an Allegro, in which Schumann's aim to emphasize the folk-idiom is clearly evident, is likewise irregular in structural design, but approximates the sonatine-allegro form. The irregularity concerns chiefly the subordinate Theme, which, in defiance of all precedent, recurs (for the greater part) in the same key as before; and it is a disproportionately lengthy chain of related Sections---wisely abbreviated in the Recapitulation. Brief allusions to the motive of the fourth Movement occur here and there.

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