Schumann: Symphony No. 4

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, op. 120 

Ziemlich langsam - Lebhaft [Fairly slow - Lively]
Romanze: Ziemlich langsam [Romance: Fairly slow]
Scherzo: Lebhaft [Scherzo: Lively]
Langsam; Lebhaft [Slow- Lively]

Duration: 30'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013

The defining relationship of Robert Schumann's life began in 1828 when he took piano lessons from and boarded with Friedrich Weick.  Weick's nine year old daughter Clara was something of a prodigy herself, and in fact it was hearing her playing that led Schumann to request lessons with her father.   

Friedrich had Clara’s career planned out in meticulous detail, and in 1830 she duly embarked on a concert tour to Paris.  Schumann, meanwhile, continued to take lessons with Wieck but had to abandon any hope of making a living as a pianist after he injured his hand.  How this injury occurred is unclear, but sit mat have been the result of ill-advised contraptions or even surgery to stretch his tendons.  In any event, a career on the concert circuit was now out of the question, and so Schumann concentrated his energies on composition, supporting himself by working as a critic.

By 1834, Schumann had established himself as a leading writer on music, and had set up the influential journal Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("New Journal of Music," a publication that continues to this day).  Meanwhile he ad become engaged to Ernestine von Fricken, the 16-year old daughter of a Bohemian nobleman.  However, it soon became clear that this match was ill-starred. Ernestine was, it turned out, illegitimate and hence would bring no dowry to the marriage.  Meanwhile, Schumann found himself increasingly attracted to Clara, by now 15.  Schumann broke off the engagement and embarked on an affair with Clara.  Weick was not happy when he discovered this and forbade his daughter to meet with Schumann.  Robert and Clara nevertheless continued their relationship in secret.  

In 1837 Schumann asked Wieck for his permission to marry Clara, and was unsurprisingly refused.  Weick threatened to disinherit Clara unless she ended the relationship.  The whole matter eventually ended up in court, when Schumann successfully sued Weick for defamation over his claims that Schumann was a drunk. Robert and Clara were finally married in 1840.

Most of Schumann's early compositions had been for piano. Now came an outburst of song, so astonishingly prolific that 1840 has come to be known as Schumann's "Year of Songs".  Encouraged by his wife, he began to explore orchestral music.  He was also inspired by his discovery in 1839 of the manuscript of Schubert's forgotten Ninth Symphony.  1841 saw an outpouring of orchestral music.  Over four days in January he sketched his First Symphony, which he completed in February and was performed in March.  In April followed a not-quite symphony, the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and in May a fantasy which would eventually form the first movement of his Piano Concerto.  In September, as he celebrated his first wedding anniversary and the birth of his first child, he completed a second symphony in D minor.  This was performed in December but was less well received.  A further symphony in 1845 became his "official" second, and the earlier work was forgotten.

A decade passed before Schumann gave further thought to the piece.  By 1851 he was music director for the city of Düsseldorf and had written another symphony, the "Rhenish".  At the same time he was given the score of an unfinished symphony by an obscure contemporary.  Norbert Burgmüller was born in Düsseldorf in the same year as Schumann and was highly regarded as a promising talent until his early death at 26. Schumann himself wrote an obituary that compared the tragedy of Burgmüller's early death to that of Schubert.  When he became aware of Burgmüller's symphonies he arranged for them to be published, and also completed the orchestration of the third movement of the Second.  He considered attempting to complete the finale as well, possibly with a view to performing it as part of the subscription concerts he directed as part of his duties in Düsseldorf, but the surviving sketches for the movement were too fragmentary.  In any case, the completion of unfinished works by dead composers was not as popular an undertaking then as it is now.

Working on Burgmüller's symphony reminded Schumann of his own long forgotten D minor symphony. He made extensive revisions in December 1851, and after some more work the symphony was finally published and performed to great acclaim in 1853.   He worked further on it intermittently over the next two years, and it was finally published and performed in its final incarnation in 1853.  This time it was received much better.  The resurrected symphony would prove to be his last.  Schumann’s health had been deteriorating for some time (probably the long-term consequence of  contracting syphilis in 1832, for which he had been treated with arsenic).  As 1853 progressed he suffered increasingly from aural hallucinations, and after a suicide attempt in February 1854 was confined to a sanatorium near Bonn.  He briefly rallied, but his mental health declined rapidly thereafter, and he died there in July 1856.

The Fourth Symphony therefore offers an unusual experience of youthful inspiration tempered by mature experience.  Schumann made a number of changes from his original scheme, adding several details to emphasise the connections between the movements (which run without a break) and revising the slow introduction and the passage connecting the third movement to the finale, one of the most inspired passages in all Schumann’s symphonies.  The major difference lies in the orchestration, which is much weightier with many lines doubled by wind and strings.  It is sometimes unkindly suggested that Schumann did this to compensate for the shortcomings of his wind players in Düdsseldorf, but it seems quite likely that his intention was to recast some heartfelt and serious ideas in an appropriately grand manner. A reflection of this intention is in the dedication on the manuscript to the violinist Joseph Joachim: "When the first sounds of this symphony emerged, Joseph Joachim was a little boy; since then the symphony and even more the youth have grown, and so I dedicate it to him, even if only silently."

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 63

Allegro moderato
Andante assai
Allegro, ben marcato

Duration: 26'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2013

In 1918, as the revolution reached its climax, Prokofiev decided that for the sake of his family’s safety they must leave Russia. The departure was intended to be temporary, until things calmed down again.  In fact it was to be 18 years until he returned permanently to his homeland.  Basing himself in Paris, he lived a semi-itinerant life, constantly traveling across the globe on concert tours.

In the newly established Soviet Union, meanwhile, the arts became an important focus for the new regime. Artists, writers and musicians were now expected to produce work that reflected the revolutionary ideals of the Communist Party.  In the early 20s this actually led to a flourishing avant-garde, as the part encouraged work that would show the new Russia as a modern, forward thinking country.  After the death of Lenin in 1924 however, Stalin took control of the party.  Stalin was a man of conservative taste, and so as he tightened his grip on the reins of power the state began to exert a more overt influence on its artists. By the 1930s the cult of the Leader was developing rapidly, and the regime began to look more inwardly.  The aim of global revolution was rejected in favour of the idea of "Socialism in One Country."   What was wanted in music now was not bourgeois innovations, but simple, optimistic tunes such as might be sung by the workers on the collective farms that were springing up as part of Stalin's series of Five Year Plans.

When he left in 1918, Prokofiev was a certified enfant terrible of Russian music, but as his extended sojourn in the west continued he became more preoccupied with a simpler, more melodic and direct style of music than he had hitherto composed.  It seemed therefore that the conditions in Soviet culture were becoming more suited to his art, and vice versa.  Moreover, Prokofiev was homesick, and longed to return to Russia.  This overwhelming desire perhaps blinded him to the true situation in his homeland.

In 1934, Prokofiev returned to Russia for the first time since the revolution for a concert tour.  Some of his more complex works were less well received by the authorities, but he felt nevertheless a rapprochement between himself and his country.  He even gave an interview to the journal Izvestiya in which he expounded on his idea that a “new simplicity” was needed in music. His growing links to his homeland were strengthened when a long cherished project, a ballet on Romeo and Juliet, was taken on by the Bolshoi ballet.  Prokofiev made arrangements to stay on the Bolshoi Theatre Estate while writing the ballet.  Having made this decision, he took the further step: he and his family would return to Russia permanently.  Prospects seemed better than America, where  his popularity was waning, and he received assurances that his international travels would not be curtailed (promises which turned out to be worthless).

The Second Violin Concerto was composed in 1935, as Prokofiev made these life-changing decisions.  It  is generally held up as an example of Prokofiev’s “new simplicity”, but it is rather more complicated than that.  It is true that there is a surface straightforwardness to its folk-like themes and clean orchestration.  But ambiguities abound: the initial theme is lopsided in its phrasing and the music constantly strays from its ostensible simplicity into more tense moods.  The middle movement presents the facade of a sweet cantilena, but the lyricism is  interrupted by nervier passages. The finale’s Spanish-tinged dance, complete with castanets, is undercut by irregular rhythms that suggest an unease behind the dance.

It was composed for the violinist Robert Soetens, who had championed Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins.  Prokofiev’s initial conception was modest. In May 1935 writing to Soetens he referred to “sketches for the concertino”, but the work he completed in the summer was altogether more substantial.  Prokofiev remarked, "The number of places in which I wrote the Concerto shows the kind of nomadic concert-tour life I led then. The main theme of the 1st movement was written in Paris, the first theme of the 2nd movement at Voronezh, the orchestration was finished in Baku and the premiere was given in Madrid."

The Madrid premiere was given on 1 December 1935, after which Prokofiev embarked on a whirlwind tour of North Africa with Soetens.  From there, he wrote to a friend, his next objective was “to join Mrs Prokofiev in Moscow for New Year’s Eve.”  In January 1936 the final preparations were made for this family to move permanently to Russia, and Prokofiev embarked on yet another international tour.  He was therefore unaware of the storm that broke on 28th on January, when an article titled “Chaos instead of Music” appeared in Pravda condemning his compatriot Shostakovich.  This was the opening salvo in a protracted war on the arts in the Soviet Union that would form part of Stalin’s Great Terror.  Prokofiev initially managed to keep some of his privileges, but after he returned from a tour in 1938 the door slammed shut and he was never allowed to leave Russia again.

Magnus Lindberg: Gran Duo

Magnus Lindberg (b. 1958)
Gran Duo

Duration: 20'
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2013

Perhaps it is something to do with northern climates, but Finnish music seems to chime well with British audiences.  Sibelius found some of the most enthusiastic reception of his music in the UK, and Magnus Lindberg, the leading composer of the current generation of Finnish composers, has also found his music become a regular staple of British concert life.  The Gran Duo is a direct product of this; it was commissioned for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle, who gave its first performance in London in 2000.

Lindberg happily describes himself as both a Romantic and a Modernist, without seeing any contradiction between the two.  His music may be highly expressive, but there is nothing nostalgic about it, and its warmth is tempered by rigorous construction.  “I don’t ask people to understand music in any technical sense because I don’t understand music in the same sense that you understand a set phrase in a language. Music is much more complex and the semantics are not really about comprehension. What makes this serious music different from commercial music is that its function is not the same as dance music or music you have on in the background. The only thing you should ask is to sit down and concentrate on it – if you don’t listen to it, it is merely a disturbance. It is the same as listening to a Beethoven symphony. You cannot listen to a Beethoven symphony in the background. It is a drama and you have to take it as it comes.”

The Gran Duo is a dialogue between wind and brass, or at least begins that way.  Lindberg has said that he wanted the work to sound “like an orchestra where the strings didn’t arrive on time.”  Its instrumentation (which also dispenses with the percussion section) recalls Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, while its title alludes to an even earlier large scale work for winds: Mozart’s Gran Partita. At first the wind and brass are distinct: the wind tend to play higher and are led on by the brass, who are lower and more assertive.  These roles conform to stereotypical notions of the masculine and feminine that permeate 19th century music.  However, as the music progresses, the two groups increasingly fragment into smaller groups and soloists, and these roles become less distinct and blur into one another.  

The Gran Duo is nominally split into five sections, but these grow out of each other organically so that the impression is of a seamless whole.  There is a precedent for this sort of approach to composition, and Lindberg acknowledges his forbear at the end with a brief allusion to Sibelius’s Tapiola.