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."

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