Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, op. 97 (“Rhenish”)

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            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.  But 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.  The third work did not appear until about five years later—all three composed while he and Clara were living in Leipzig.  In 1850 they removed to Düsseldorf, a short distance down the Rhine from Cologne, where he took over leadership of important musical posts, to considerable acclaim and popularity.  He had been there less than a month, when he visited the magnificent, imposing cathedral of Cologne—the putative inspiration for Symphony No. 3 in Eb Major, composed in November and early December, later that fall.  More specifically, a subsequent visit in early November, the time of the elevation of the Archbishop of Cologne to cardinal, inspired the ecclesiastical solemnity of the fourth movement of the symphony.  That movement is an added movement before the last movement, giving five movements in all—not that unusual, given Beethoven’s example in his sixth symphony, as well as Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique. 

            The first movement is an energetic, effusive celebration of the Rhine River and the cathedral with a leaping, syncopated main theme that propels the whole movement.  The horns, especially, inform the atmosphere with a heroic quality so associated with the works of Richard Strauss some forty years later.  The gentle, undulating main section of the second movement is clearly an evocation of the flowing river.  This is the traditional “dance” or scherzo movement of most symphonies, but here, takes the character of a gentle German Ländler.  Schumann, being Schumann, can’t resist later taking the mood to a more forceful atmosphere, replete with the “heroic” horns, but it all ends peacefully.  The third movement provides a serene interlude that reminds us of the nuance and subtle beauty of so many of Schumann’s Lieder.  Harmonic richness and melodic invention beguile us, as the parade of winsome melodies pass before us.   In a creative touch of unification, Schumann makes constant use of a little four-note chromatic ascending scale that connects the melodic passages and ties it all together--that idea getting the last word.

            The interpolated fourth movement is perhaps the signature movement of the symphony, inspired by the Archbishop’s elevation.  Schumann marked it as “in the character of a procession for a solemn ceremony.”  That it is, and it begins with a chorale-like passage in the trombones and horns that majestically ascends into the sonic stratosphere—trombones, of course, evoking their long association with the church.   The floating “solemn” harmonies are borne by the lower instruments that provide the “processional steps.” The soaring main theme pervades throughout, with sections treated contrapuntally in the best ecclesiastic tradition.  The Rhine River may be the central metaphor of the symphony, but the majestic Cologne cathedral is the spiritual focus, here.

            The last movement is a spirited romp, with two dancing themes that cascade towards the conclusion.  A stately pronouncement from the brass section briefly interrupts the dash to the end, and Schumann’s cheerful trip up the Rhine to Cologne joyfully concludes.  The sad dementia that ultimately ended his life is thankfully little in evidence in this, one of his happiest times.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan