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Composed: 1850

Length: c. 32 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 13, 1926, Eugene Goossens conducting

About this Piece

In September 1850, Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and their seven children moved to Düsseldorf, where the composer had accepted a position as the city’s Music Director. The last time the Schumanns had relocated – from Leipzig to Dresden in 1845 – the strain on Robert had been so great that an engulfing physical and psychological breakdown resulted. The composer never completely recovered.

Schumann was initially enthusiastic about his new position. He found the people along the Rhine quite different from those in Leipzig and Dresden – the move to Düsseldorf marked the first time he had lived outside of his Saxon homeland. (Before 1871, the area we know today as Germany was a patchwork of states in Central Europe.) The Rhinelanders were outgoing and prosperous – Düsseldorf was one of continental Europe’s leading industrial centers during the middle decades of the 19th century – and, at the beginning at least, excited about their new music director. The whirlwind of social activity surrounding the Schumanns’ arrival included dinners, balls, and speeches; the city orchestra even serenaded their new Music Director on two occasions. Only the family’s lodgings were less than ideal. They lived in an apartment in the middle of the city, where, according to Clara, “the incessant street noises, barrel-organs, screaming brats, wagons, etc.” disrupted her husband’s attempts to compose. Schumann thought that the apartment was the source of his bad mood, recording in his household diary that he had “house anger.”

At the end of September, the Schumanns took a day trip via train south to Cologne. Schumann had long wanted to see the cathedral there – he had set Heinrich Heine’s poem “Im Rhein,” a paean to the building (“The Rhine, the beautiful river, / reflects in its waves, with its great cathedral, the great holy city of Cologne”), in his 1840 song cycle Dichterliebe. The composer was so impressed when he saw the recently completed structure “in the flesh” (construction had started over six hundred years earlier, in 1248) that he returned in November to tour the cathedral. He commemorated the solemn splendor of the place in the fourth movement of the “Rhenish” Symphony.

The Symphony as a whole captures Schumann’s response to the Rhineland at its most euphoric. He started composing the work just before that second visit to Cologne, beginning the first movement November 2. The whole Symphony was sketched and orchestrated in a mere five weeks, being completed on December 9.

There are two forces at work in the Symphony – an essential formal conservatism and an exuberant rhythmic and melodic inventiveness. Even the unusual five-movement structure has a precedent in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. These two forces combine to give the opening movement tremendous swagger and swing, with the horns vaulting over the rest of the orchestra, belting out the movement’s majestic first theme. The winds get the brief second theme. From this material, Schumann proceeds to construct the most rigorous sonata-form symphonic movement he ever composed.

The three central movements function as interludes, capturing different moods and suggesting different scenes, while simultaneously fulfilling the requirements of the symphony for a scherzo and a slow movement. The second-movement scherzo, which Schumann originally called “Morning on the Rhine,” captures the relaxed atmosphere of the composer’s new surroundings with its gently rocking theme. The third movement provides a slow intermezzo – with winds and horns sounding a lyrical melody, over a string accompaniment – that reminds the listener of Schumann’s skill as a songwriter.

What follows is perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring things Schumann ever penned for orchestra, a vast symphonic canvas that seems to exist somewhere beyond the boundaries of time. Schumann originally gave the movement – composed with his imagination fired by the Cologne cathedral – a descriptive title, “In the character of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony,” but later boiled that down to the simple indication “Feierlich” (“solemn”). Alto, tenor, and bass trombones color the orchestral texture accordingly, and the movement culminates in a massive, repeated fanfare for brass and winds.

With the finale, the animation of the first movement returns. Here, Schumann emphasizes rhythm and clarity of articulation (much of the music is marked to be played staccato), giving the music a propulsive lightness that drives the Symphony to its exhilarating, noble close.

Schumann led the first performance of the Symphony on his sixth subscription concert in Düsseldorf on February 6, 1851, and the work was such a success that he repeated it on March 13. This was one of the few triumphs he enjoyed in the city on the Rhine, for it soon became clear that Schumann’s rigorous musical idealism was not well-matched to his surroundings. Düsseldorf’s concerts took place in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere, with sandwiches and drinks served in a park surrounding the hall during intermission, quite different from the stiff formality of courtly musical life in Dresden and from the seriousness of concerts in Leipzig, both of which were more to Schumann’s taste. The Düsseldorf orchestra was small, about 40 players, but Schumann couldn’t count on even this number since musicians were chronically absent from rehearsals and performances. During her husband’s first season as Music Director, Clara got into a row with the city, which had not paid her for her appearance as a piano soloist on the program. (Her reaction was certainly justified – she was an accomplished artist in her own right, and the city’s attitude of “buy the husband, get the wife free” was a sore point.) Schumann’s conducting eventually came under fire as well, as a vicious cycle of pressure and stress took their toll on his physical and mental condition. In January 1854, Schumann, by then a slave to his hallucinations and delusions, tried to kill himself by jumping into the Rhine. He died in an asylum two-and-a-half years later. — John Mangum