Symphony No. 1 in Bb, op. 38 (“Spring”)

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            Schumann composed in almost all of the common genres, and notwithstanding his success in the larger forms, did perhaps his most respected work in song and piano literature.  Known—at least during his lifetime—almost as much for his distinguished career as music critic and essayist, even today his analyses and commentaries lend valuable insights into the music of his milieu and times.  He was a formidable pianist—his wife, Clara, even more so—and his contributions to the piano stand with those of Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms in artistic significance.

            Schumann was a Romantic to the core, yet, withal, he had great respect for clarity, balance, and formal integrity so characteristic of the music of Classicism.  It must be admitted, however, that to some degree his deep passions and emotional self-indulgences can be seen as aspects of a personality that ultimately broke down in the psychoses and pathologies that led to his early death in an institution. He was happy early on, however, and the years of his early marriage brought forth masterworks in spates, as his mind focused extraordinarily in narrow directions.   Up to the time of his marriage to Clara he had composed exclusively music for the piano, a great corpus of work that is one of the century’s important contributions to the literature for the instrument.  And the joy and exuberance upon his marriage in1840 led to a remarkable outpouring of songs—some 125 in that year alone.

             Nevertheless, Schumann made important contributions to chamber and symphonic music, and his four symphonies are respected contributions to orchestral literature.  He turned his talents to the genre—at Clara’s enthusiastic encouragement--the very next year after the remarkable production of Lieder in 1840.  His first two symphonies—No. 1 in Bb Major “Spring” and No. 4 in D Minor (it’s complicated—don’t ask) were the result, and the first is an especially exuberant celebration of the joy and optimism of that period—not at all prescient of the dark and tragic end to his life. 

            One of the misleading aspects of the popularity of many classic and romantic works is the proclivity of fans to bestow nicknames on them of dubious authenticity or even appropriateness.  Probably no composer has suffered more in this respect than, say, Haydn, but there are many others.  But in the case of Schumann’s first symphony, the composer himself is the source of the appellation, “Spring.”  As a great composer of Lieder, he knew much poetry, and a poem is the inspiration for Schumann’s communicated thoughts on the mood and nature of the symphony so named.

            Schumann composed the work quickly during late January and February of 1841, and its première took place the next month.  The poetic inspiration of “spring” is generally taken to be by Adolf Böttger, entitled Frühlingsgedicht (poem of spring) and full of inspiring, energetic paeans to the season. Indeed, the first movement opens with a dramatic fanfare by the trumpets summoning spring’s awakening.  And that interpretation is on record by the composer.  Schumann also wrote that, later in the introduction, the music should suggest the greening of the world and butterflies in the air.   The ensuring allegro he said should depict spring coming alive.  Well, that’s pretty specific, and fits the music fine.  After the dramatic, slow introduction, the main theme of the allegro is easily discerned, as is the somewhat more relaxed subordinate theme.   In the development, the latter is completely absent, the composer choosing to work over the first one, alone.  The recapitulation is announced by the dramatic fanfare of the opening, and interesting enough, Schumann introduces a completely new theme at the very end of the work, near the end of the coda—a striking bit of originality by a true German romantic!

            The second movement (originally entitled “Evening,” but later withdrawn) is simple in form, and perhaps best heard simply as an extended song for orchestra.  Schumann was one of the giants of German Lieder, who had just finished his “wonder year” of song composition, and the metaphor is completely apt.  Schumann’s gift for melody and rich romantic harmonies comes strongly to the fore here.  Of interest are the numerous trills in the orchestral parts—a bit unusual, and more typical of the piano music of the time—think Chopin.  Schumann, of course, was a gifted pianist and composer of piano music, so, it shouldn’t surprise.  Finally, noteworthy is the short solo for the trombone section at the very end.  It seems to come out of nowhere, and its rather dark chromaticism casts an ambiguous tone to the mood.  It eerily foretells a similar use of the instruments in his third symphony. But more specifically, it anticipates the main theme of the following scherzo.

            The third movement is the usual dance-like diversion, but Schumann extends the form with two trios instead of the usual single diversion in the middle.  Furthermore, all of the main sections are divided into two contrasting segments—so, there’s a lot of different ideas to keep track of.  But it’s not necessary to “keep track,” anyway.  A few interesting points, though:  the first section starts with a vigorous, somewhat syncopated affair in the minor mode, followed by a more cheerful response.  The following Trio I is a nothing more than an active call-and-response, antiphonal dance in two—not the traditional three beats.  Schumann builds it out of the shortest of ideas—essentially two notes!  After a return of the opening, Trio II kicks even more vigorously, built on simple scales and displaced accents.  Finally, after an abbreviated recap of the opening, there is a rather curious coda that ends it all with in a most tranquil, peaceful mood, but with a little zippy tag worthy of Berlioz.

            A bold, ascending scale in broad notes announces the last movement—it will be important—followed by a complementary idea whose dancing rhythm is almost balletic.  Collectively they are the main ideas of the movement.  After a bit we encounter the second “theme,” but later it is not given much shrift—we’ll hear little of it.  But, for the record, it is vaguely redolent of Mendelssohn in its airy lightness (but made interesting with a hint of the opening broad scale—this time in minor).  In typical romantic fashion, Schumann develops only the first idea (both parts), and ignores the Mendelssohn-like idea.  In a creative twist, a leisurely, soft passage featuring solo oboe, horns, and flute announces the recapitulation—in the best Parisian opera fashion of the times.

            The race to the end is exuberant, and its vivacity is completely characteristic of Schumann at the peak of his happiness—both in his artistry and his marriage.  Nowhere is a hint of his forthcoming tragic days.  It is indeed spring.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan