The composer made a faltering start in his symphonic writing, but more than redeemed himself in later years.


I n December 1839, Schumann arranged the first performance of Schubert’s GreatC major Symphony, which had been gathering dust since the composer’s death in 1828. Hearing it turned Schumann’s mind to writing one of his own. It’s not as if he hadn’t thought about it before; he’d had some success with an unfinished symphony in G minor in the early 1830s. But in January 1841 Schumann finally sat down to write and within just four days he had finished sketching what we now know as his First Symphony. The orchestration took another few weeks but was complete by February. By any stretch of the imagination, this is extraordinary.

With its completion, Schumann was only just getting started in his “symphonic year” of 1841. In April and May he composed the Overture, Scherzo and Finale. As soon as it was finished, he embarked on another symphony, this...

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