Orchestral Music: Symphony No. 3, in E-Flat, Op. 97 (Rhenish Symphony) (Robert Schumann)

(Born June 29, 1810, in Zwickau; died July 29, 1856, in Endenich)

For many years Schumann’s symphonies were only grudgingly admired.  Critics often said that they were awkwardly assembled and clumsily scored works whose place in the repertoire was rescued only by their lovely melodies and occasional glorious moments.  When Mahler conducted them, he completely “retouched” the orchestration.  Schumann himself had recognized the faults of construction of his Symphony No. 4, and he spent ten years trying to rid it of them.  In 1892, George Bernard Shaw proposed a cynic’s solutions: “Extract all the noble passages from Schumann’s symphonies and combine them into a single fantasia -- Reminiscences of Schumann.”   Such opinions have been rendered obsolete by a number of factors.  The general acceptance of Brahms’s four symphonies as “classics” has reflected credit on the symphonies of Schumann, Brahms’ mentor.  Furthermore, conductors now think of Schumann’s idiosyncratic orchestral style as an important element in his total character as a composer, and they would not dream of re-orchestrating his scores to make them sound like someone else’s.

The Third Symphony is in many ways Schumann’s best, and he wrote it quickly, at a speed that would have been remarkable even for a composer who had not suffered his periodic attacks of “rheumatism” and “hypochondria” that doctors in our time think may have been syphilis, stroke and schizophrenia.  This symphony was composed in the Rhine Valley town of Dusseldorf, to which the Schumann family moved from Dresden in September 1850, for Robert’s first appointment as a conductor.  He was happy and at ease in his new position.  In October he wrote a cello concerto and conducted his first concert.  During five weeks of November and December, he sketched and scored this symphony, and he conducted its first performance on February 6, 1851.  He played it in Cologne on the 25th, and in March repeated it in Dusseldorf “by popular request.”

Schumann had never before attained such richness of romantic expression in an orchestral work.  No one knows exactly when or how this work came to be called the Rhenish Symphony, but Schumann did say that he wanted it to reflect the pleasure he found in his new life in the Rhineland.  The rhythms and textures of this symphony must have been models for young Johannes Brahms.

The principal subjects of the first movement, Lebhaft (“Lively”) are long, far-ranging melodies that derive a large part of their vitality from the complex, syncopated ambiguity of their rhythmic structure.  Next is the Scherzo, Sehr mässig (“Very moderate”), whose main theme suggests the majestically flowing waters of a great river.  Third is a movement headed simply Nicht schnell  (“Not fast”), in which those same waters could be said to ripple gently.

The unusual extra movement of this five-movement work is very closely and directly related to the Rhineland.  On November 12, ten days after Schumann had begun the new symphony, he and his wife went to Cologne to attend the ceremonies at the Cathedral in which the Archbishop was elevated to Cardinal.  A few days later he noted in his score that this fourth movement was “in the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony.”   After the first performances, he reduced the description to the single word, Feirlich, which can be rendered in English as either “solemn” or “ceremonial.”   The texture of the writing is in the contrapuntal style thought suitable for performance in church, and the choir of trombones provides the orchestra with choral voices.  To close, there is a bright and sunny finale, Lebhaft again, in which the music makes reference to the first and third movements.

This symphony is scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.

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