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

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


Robert Schumann, who spent a great deal of time writing songs in his mid-career, finally turned at the urging of his wife Clara to large-scale orchestral works like symphonies and concertos. He composed Symphony No. 3 quickly between November 2 and December 9, 1850.  This symphony, the final one he was to write, marks a high point in the composer's life.

There was a time when Schumann’s idiosyncratic style motivated composers and conductors who were ambivalent about his symphonies to think of ways to alter them, some even with the idea of re-orchestrating the works.  Ostensibly such tinkering with the originals would have corrected what was initially read as their awkwardness and clumsy scoring, but it might also have made them sound like someone else’s music altogether.  They were not discarded because of their lovely themes and occasional glorious moments, but when Gustav Mahler conducted them, he completely “retouched” the orchestration.  George Bernard Shaw, neither a composer nor a conductor, was bold enough to suggest, “Extract all the noble passages from Schumann’s symphonies and combine them into a single fantasia -- Reminiscences of Schumann.”  Yet no longer are Schumann’s symphonies half-heartedly admired; after the acceptance of Brahms’s four symphonies as “classics,” Schumann, who was Brahms’s mentor, received long due respect. The desire some had had to fix or correct his symphonies finally disappeared.

Many music historians believe Symphony No. 3 to be Schumann’s best, although he wrote it very quickly.  The speed with which it was composed was remarkable for him as the progress of his work often suffered from his frequent attacks of “rheumatism” and “hypochondria” that doctors now think may have been depression or even syphilis, stroke and/or schizophrenia. 

Schumann composed this symphony in the Rhine Valley town of Düsseldorf, to which he moved in September 1850, to take up a post as conductor.  He had never spent any time near the great Rhine River before, having lived most of his life in Saxony, where he was born.  The new position allowed him to have a direct experience with orchestral players; it initially made him optimistic and at ease, probably for the last time in his life.  In October he wrote a cello concerto and conducted his first concert; a month later he began to sketch and score this symphony.  He conducted its premiere performance on February 6, 1851, to an audience and music critics who were very reserved in their reception of it.  Three years later, on February 27, 1854, Schumann tried to commit suicide in the Rhine, but was rescued and hospitalized for the remaining two and a half years of his life.

Actually, this symphony is the fourth symphony he composed, not the third symphony although it bears the number three.  After he wrote his second symphony, with which he was not pleased, he then composed two more, of which this one is the second. After he completed this one, he did return to the discarded symphony, worked on it some more, and it became what we now know as Symphony No. 4, although it was conceived of before Symphony No. 3.

The name by which this symphony is known, Rhenish, was appended after Schumann wrote to his publisher, Simrock, that he wished he had composed a greater work about the Rhine, although he felt this one “perhaps mirrors here and there something of Rhenish life.”  He later said he aimed to picture the Rhine valley in the “joyous simplicity and fresh naturalness of its folk life,” but he also explained that he felt descriptive titles were not necessary.  “One ought not to show one’s heart to people. A general impression of an art work is more effective; the listener then will not institute any absurd comparisons.”  Schumann was pleased with his product; he believed he had never before succeeded in bringing forth as much richness of romantic expression in an orchestral work.

The principal subjects of the exultant first movement, Lebhaft (“Lively”), are long and glorious melodies that derive a large part of their vitality from the complex, syncopated ambiguity of their rhythmic structure.  Next comes the Scherzo, Sehr mässig (“Very moderate”), whose easygoing main theme is announced by the cellos and the bassoons.  Some historians find in it suggestions of the majestically flowing waters of a great river; Michael Steinberg called it “an agreeably galumphing country dance.”  Schumann labeled it “Morning on the Rhine.”  The third, a lyrical movement headed simply Nicht schnell (“Not fast”) sounds very idiosyncratically Schumann, rather than fitting the outlines of a traditional slow movement of a symphony.   Clarinets and bassoons announce the main theme against viola accompaniment and pizzicati strings.

The fourth movement, Feierlich (“Solemn”), usually called “Cathedral Scene,” is slower than the movement that precedes it.  On November 12th, ten days after Schumann had begun writing this symphony, he and his wife went to Cologne to attend the ceremonies at the Cologne Cathedral in which the Archbishop was installed as 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 of the work, Schumann eliminated the description.  In this movement Schumann introduces trombones, instruments which had not as yet found their normal place in the symphony orchestra; at the time, they were more identified with ecclesiastical and theatrical music.  Written in kind of contrapuntal style, including qualities of polyphonic style, this movement befits the awesome impression the monumental Gothic edifice made on Schumann.

The fifth movement, an unusual extra movement, is a bright and cheerful finale, Lebhaft (“Lively”).  Some annotators have remarked that it is supposed to portray a festival held in the Rhineland; others say it is an extension of the cathedral section.  The movement brings back echoes of themes from the first and third movements; it also includes a triumphal return, at the end, of the music of the cathedral movement.

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