Schumann -- Symphony #4

It is fashionable to criticize Robert Schumann for being a "poor orchestrator." Those who offer such an opinion do not usually mean that Schumann was ineffective at finding the right orchestral color to suit the character demanded by the music: indeed, the passion, heroism, and turmoil that are evident in all of his output come across clearly in the orchestral works. Instead, most criticism focuses on his technical knowledge -- for example, whether certain orchestral instruments could or could not play various pitches -- and his handling of balance. The technical knowledge that Schumann somewhat lacked primarily concerned the brass instruments. Until valves became standard on horns and trumpets, those instruments had only limited notes available, a fact which Beethoven, Mozart, and all other earlier composers had to take into account, and a limitation which Schumann had a tendency to disregard or misunderstand. Although Schumann's carelessness in this area is perhaps a trifle embarrassing, it does not indicate any overall lack of talent for writing for the orchestra.

The balance problems that occasionally arise in Schumann's orchestral music are, in most instances, easily solved by making adjustments in the dynamic indications of the various parts. In a few cases, conductors sometimes take it upon themselves to make more serious changes, asking some sections of the orchestra -- most frequently the horns, trumpets, and timpani -- to play notes other than those indicated by the composer. Although purists reject these alterations as arrogant attempts to "improve" on a creative genius, no disrespect is intended: the most venerated symphonies of the great Beethoven are often subjected to exactly the same kind of changes, even (or perhaps especially!) by highly respected conductors, only without the pseudo-justification that Beethoven was a "poor orchestrator."

Schumann's Fourth Symphony has a curious history in this light. Originally completed in 1841, the symphony was entirely unsuccessful at its premiere. Orchestra concerts of the mid-nineteenth century often suffered from a paucity of rehearsal time. The players depended on the conductor for basic information -- like when to play after counting numerous measures of rest -- to a greater extent than is typical for a modern orchestra. Schumann, who was a poor conductor, handled the first performance of this work (which was, at the time, only the second symphony he had written) himself, and it seems certain that the failure of the piece was at least partly due to his unskilled leadership. Insecure about the merit of the composition, Schumann withdrew it. Since one of the criticisms of the piece had been that it was (surprise) "poorly orchestrated," Schumann overhauled the orchestration and introduced the work ten years later as the Symphony #4, having written two others in the meantime.

The changes in the orchestration reflect Schumann's continuing experience as a conductor: in countless instances, where he had before trusted only a single section of the orchestra with an important melodic line, he chose in the revision to have more players involved. These changes increase the probability that at least one player will enter correctly (no small concern, given the circumstances), but also have the effect, once the orchestra is better prepared, of sacrificing some of the possible variations in sound. The irony is that, although the revised version is more secure, more comfortable for the musicians, and better balanced -- in short, "better orchestrated" -- the original version feels more genuine, and probably comes closer to the way Schumann wanted the orchestra to sound. The premiere of the revised Fourth Symphony was conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, who was not only a fellow composer but also one of the finest conductors of his day. Thus, in a sense, Schumann never had the opportunity to compare the two versions fairly, and we cannot know which he would have preferred.

Johannes Brahms, who was a disciple and close friend of Schumann's, believed the original version to be superior, but it is the revision that has become standard. Conductors who lead performances of the work are confronted with a dilemma: whether to use one version or the other as it stands, or to modify one version according to what seems to be suggested by the other. After changing his mind several times, Eric Lindholm finally opted for the revised version of 1851 for these performances. However, in several places, he retained elements from the earlier version, not being able to believe that Schumann really wanted to abandon such fine ideas.

The Fourth is noteworthy for its experimental approach to symphonic form. Although cast in the usual four movements, following the usual fast-slow-dance-fast pattern, the work draws on many of the same melodic ideas throughout. The effect is more of a "symphonic fantasy" (as Schumann originally labeled the piece) than a classical symphony, with tensions set up early in the first movement not resolved until the end, half an hour later. Schumann indicated that the symphony should be performed uninterrupted by pauses, partly to discourage the contemporary custom of applauding after every movement, but also to reinforce the idea that the symphony stands as a single, integrated creation.

The first movement corresponds to the common plan of a slow introduction followed by a faster main section. The exposition (the first part of the main section) corresponds to the traditional sonata-allegro principal, with two clearly defined tonal areas, each with its own character. But then something starts to go awry. Right when the development section (the second part of a sonata-allegro structure) feels like it should be ending, giving way to the renewed strength of the opening material, the music takes a wrong turn. An entire 74-measure segment of the development is repeated, essentially identical except for being in a different key. By the time the development section finally concludes, no time remains for the recapitulation (the third and last large part of a typical sonata- allegro movement) -- thus some material from the exposition is never heard again, and the tensions built up through the rest of the movement are left unresolved.

The second movement focuses on an intimate melody shared by the solo oboe and solo cello. The mood here is much more subdued, but material from the introduction of the first movement is retrieved, reminding the listener of previous struggles. A middle section in D major features the solo violin gracefully asking for freedom from the rest of the orchestra. When the opening melody of the oboe and cello returns, the pair are joined by the solo bassoon, further darkening the sound and the mood. The third movement is a scherzo, a fast, violent, primitive dance that hardly gives itself time to breathe. After each scherzo episode, however, comes a serene trio, offering a complete change of character. The violins in the trio play a melody derived from the violin solo in the middle of the second movement, reinforcing the feeling of wishing for happier times.

As the second trio winds down, the melody gradually disintegrates, sustained notes are discarded in favor of short ones, and those members of the orchestra who are still playing get slower and quieter. Just as the music has reached the point of greatest mystery, the primary melodic fragment from the first movement returns in the violins. The trombones, who played only a few notes in the second movement and rested during the entire third, enter with great dignity, and the entire orchestra gradually swells in sound. No sooner has the momentum been built up than it abruptly stops -- but it is a false alarm, and the jubilant finale is under way. The fourth movement has conflicts of its own, but none of the severity of what has passed, and the menacing fragment that dominated the first movement has been converted from D minor to D major. The end of the symphony features a series of faster and faster sections, which never look back in their race to a triumphant conclusion.


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