April 6, 2013 7:30 PM
Vernon Cook Theater
Clinton High School
Symphony No 3in E-flat major
'Rhenish', Op 97
Scherzo: Sehr massig
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) made an insincere effort at composing a symphony as early as 1832 when he completed one movement of a Symphony in G minor. After two performances of the movement elicited at best a tepid response, Schumann abandoned the work. Only after making a name for himself as a composer of lieder and chamber music did he return to the genre, and only after his wife Clara (nee, Wieck) had encouraged him to do so. Clara, a renowned concert pianist herself, was rightly concerned that if Robert ever hoped to advance his career, he would have to engage his talents in producing larger, symphonic works that would announce to the music world his arrival as a composer of the first rank.
Schumann suffered from severe emotional and career depression as a young man that became more profound as he aged; at times he became so debilitated that he was incapable of composing or performing. This severe melancholia was absent, however, in 1841 when he began to compose his first symphony. One may even suggest that his Symphony No 1 in B-flat major, subtitled Spring, is the most outward and optimistic symphonic work he ever composed. Immediately on finishing the First Symphony, he began work on another, a symphony in D minor, which over the years underwent several revisions to emerge later as his Symphony No 4 in D minor. While the Spring symphony was warmly-received at its premiere at Leipzig under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, the D minor work was not, and it was published in 1851, following the release of his quite successful Symphony No 3 in E-flat Major in 1850.
In 1845 the Schumann family moved from Leipzig to Dresden where Schumann and Clara hoped to establish themselves, he as composer and she as concert pianist. The Dresden years failed to meet either of their expectations, but more so for Robert, who had to compete with Richard Wagner in the German city. Wagner during this same period produced two formidable operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Schumann did complete one opera, Genoveva, in 1848, but it was not performed in Dresden, but in Leipzig two years later, again under the direction of his friend Felix Mendelssohn. And to add to the Schumanns' disquiet, Dresden was more of an 'opera' town than a 'concert' town, and, consequently, Clara's opportunities were fewer. The strain proved too much for Schumann who slipped into such a dire psychological state, bordering on a complete breakdown, that his physical health deteriorated markedly.
In the midst of his trauma, Schumann received word from the city fathers of Düsseldorf offering him the position of music director and conductor to succeed his good friend and fellow composer Ferdinand Hiller. Schumann was not a conductor of any particular merit, but he and Clara saw this offer as a chance to escape the negative atmosphere of Dresden, and to begin, as Clara later explained, their professional lives anew. The Düsseldorf offer and his acceptance dispelled the dark clouds that had engulfed Schumann, and he foresaw a revival of his physical health, as well as a renewal of his creative powers. With a fresh optimism, the Schumanns took residence in Düsseldorf in September 1850.
Düsseldorf was a thriving industrial center in the Rhineland of Germany when the Schumanns arrived, and the atmosphere among the citizens and businesses was much more relaxed and free-wheeling than the more staid environments of Leipzig and Dresden. The city welcomed the new arrivals with serenades, balls, banquets and speeches. The Schumanns settled into the rhythm of life in Düsseldorf, with only one serious complaint of note. Clara complained that their apartment in the middle of the business district opened them to a daily mix of 'incessant street noises, barrel-organs, screaming brats, wagons' and all manner of other disturbances. Robert wrote that all the commotion which interfered with his work had brought on recurring bouts of 'house anger.'
The cathedral city of Cologne lay only a short distance along the Rhine River from Düsseldorf. Robert and Clara decided on a day trip at the end of September to see the newly completed Catholic showpiece, a cathedral that had been under construction for six centuries. The Schumanns were delighted with what they encountered, not only with the cathedral, but with the people and scenic landscapes as well. Robert made a solo journey to the city later in November shortly after he began work on his Symphony No 3 in E-flat major.
An invigorated Schumann began his Rhenish symphony on November 2, 1850, and had it completed in the remarkably short time of five weeks. Indications are that he intended the symphony to be a programmatic work in the vein of Ludwig van Beethoven's Sixth - Pastoral -Symphony and Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, but by its publication date the five-movement work had standard movement markings, not descriptive headings. The fourth movement is the closest to a piece of literal program music that Schumann ever wrote - to depict a 'solemn [Feierlich] ceremony' inside the Cologne cathedral, and, indeed, the brass fanfares are awe-inspiring. A reference to this processional music is made in the final moments of the symphony.
The symphony, Schumann's paean to the Rhineland and its principal city Cologne, premiered on February 6, 1851, in Düsseldorf as part of the orchestra's sixth subscription concert. The reception for the work was so enthusiastic that Schumann repeated it on a March 13 program.
That first season in Düsseldorf may have been the high point of the Schumanns' four-year stay there. Schumann, used to the more reserved musical climate of Leipzig and Dresden, found the relaxed aura of Düsseldorf not to his liking - intermissions were more of the Parisian style, with sandwiches and drinks available in a park adjoining the concert hall. The orchestra numbered about forty players who were lax in their commitment to the demands of practice and performance. Too, Clara had conflicts with the symphony board who refused to pay her for her concert appearance as a soloist, possibly because they felt that she, as wife to the conductor, should perform without fee. Schumann became increasingly withdrawn and depressed until in desperation in January 1854 he threw himself into the Rhine in an attempted suicide. He was rescued by a fisherman and confined to a mental institution where he died in 1856. His condition was so dire that Clara was allowed to visit him only on a couple of occasions with no physical contact permitted.