In December 1839, Schumann arranged the first performance of Schubert’s Great C 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 time in D minor. This occupied him from May to October and was his most radical achievement of the symphonic year. The movements are interconnected by a network of themes, which are adapted and developed across the whole piece, not just within movements.
The D minor symphony of 1841 is rarely heard today because it was a failure at its first performance and was not published in Schumann’s lifetime. The original version was published by Brahms – against the wishes of Schumann’s widow Clara – in 1891, 35 years after Schumann’s death.
In 1845 Schumann began the symphony we now call No 2, the Symphony in C major, which he completed in 1846. The C major symphony has an air of nobility about it, as well as an overwhelmingly positive mood. Again, there are ideas which permeate the entire work – the only shadow falls over the music in the slow movement, an emotional juxtaposition which Schumann gets exactly right. At its first performance the critics hailed the work as a watershed in his development.
Similar acclaim met Schumann’s next symphony, composed in 1850, just after he moved to Düsseldorf as Municipal Music Director. One of his early biographers, who knew Schumann personally, claimed that the site of Cologne Cathedral led to the composition of the E flat major symphony, composed in November and December of 1850. The work celebrates the culture of the Rhineland, hence the nickname of Rhenish.
In 1851 Schumann wrote to the publisher Simrock that the work “here and there reflects a bit of local colour”, and there is indeed a popular tone struck through the work’s five movements. The Rhenish symphony was premiered in Düsseldorf in February 1851 and the audience greeted it with cheering; clearly they heard the local colour as well.
It was in the same year as this work’s premiere, 1851, that Schumann returned to his D minor symphony, which had failed so abysmally ten years before. He even considered not calling it a symphony at all but rather a “symphonic fantasy”. He made some cosmetic changes to the work, such as giving the tempo indications in German rather than Italian. But other changes were more substantial, such as recomposing some of the links between the movements and tightening up the finale.
However the most controversial changes came in the orchestration, which is thicker and heavier in the later version. It was in this form that the D minor symphony was published as Schumann’s Symphony No 4.
The Rhenish symphony, though, was Schumann’s last completely original symphony and it marked 1850 as the end of the line, in one sense, for the symphony as a form. As Richard Taruskin has pointed out, no symphony composed between 1850 and 1870 has remained in the repertoire. Plenty were written, but there was no innovation or true individuality in the symphony until the works of Brahms, and some French and Russian composers, after 1870. It seemed as if Schumann had set the bar very high – a view with which I agree.