Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, op. 120

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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.  A gifted and passionate musician, he was privileged to be married to the love of his life, Clara Wieck, herself a respected composer and highly regarded concert pianist.  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 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, as evidenced by the deep emotional feeling imbued in his works; by his great appreciation for fine poetry in his song settings; and by his ability to create unique and profound art in the briefest of music moments.   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 to Clara 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.  Even though he had earlier rather disparaged the composition of songs, his joy and exuberance upon his marriage in1840 led to a remarkable outpouring of them—some 125!--in that year alone.  He later referred to it as his “year of song.”

             The next year saw the composition of his first two symphonies, the second of which is in D minor.   It was published ten years later as No. 4, but it is chronologically his second.  He was dissatisfied with it, and upon its publication after ten years, it had undergone rather substantial revisions—the later form being the version most often performed.  It is historically significant as perhaps the first major example of a symphony that consistently uses the same melodic material in all four of the traditional movements.  One may remember that Beethoven in the last movement of his Symphony No. 9 briefly recalled themes from the earlier three movements, but that was a decided exception from the way things had always been done.  With some exceptions, during the time of Haydn, Mozart, and other folks who created the classical style, composers conventionally introduced new ideas for each movement.  As the romantic style of the nineteenth century evolved, the concept of unifying whole multi-movement works with a core of musical ideas used in every movement became a signal characteristic of the times.  Schumann’s fourth symphony stands at the beginning of this very romantic way of doing things.  While all of his symphonic music from that year indulges to some degree in this technique, the D minor work stands out in its extensive use.  The melodic material heard early on in the first movement pretty much informs all of the rest of the symphony.  But, of course, that’s not the reason to listen to and enjoy a major work by one of the time’s greatest music geniuses.  It’s also a delightful record of the passion and technical gift of a unique artist.

            The first symphony was conceived and roughed out in some detail in only four days and nights (he referred to it as “symphonic fire”) in January 1840.  He began the second symphony with the same zeal in May, and it was finished by October.  It met with only mixed reactions at its première in December, and so he withheld its publication until after its intense revisions ten years later.

            The four movements are intended to be played without a pause, reinforcing through continuity the unity engendered by the use of similar melodic ideas throughout.  The first movement opens quietly with what is nominally the basic idea of the symphony, heard in the rising and falling stepwise tune in the strings and bassoons.  Shortly thereafter, when the tempo picks up, the leaping main element of this opening movement (section, if you will) is worked through thoroughly, and is itself derived from that opening figure.  An important point to remember is that all of this so-called unity and close relationship to all of the ideas is a subtle one.  Schumann is not tempted at all to make this obvious, so if one can’t hear it clearly—it doesn’t matter at all.   Though the key is minor, there is an aura of Schumann’s preternatural optimism and lyricism infused throughout the stormy atmosphere.  Later some emphatic chords interrupt—these will appear again in the last movement.  After a triumphal, hammering conclusion, the second movement—Romanze—ensues without a break—opening with a melancholy oboe solo sounding rather like a folksong.  As it closes, the very opening theme of the first movement will be easy to spot again, leading to a cheerful violin solo, spinning out a filigree.  A reprise of the melancholy oboe solo rounds out the movement, leading right into the dancing, but menacing, scherzo movement—based on, you guessed it, the original material heard at the very beginning of the symphony.  And to top it off, the light mood in the middle section is reminiscent of the violin solo that we have just heard in the Romanze.   Schumann’s mysterious, magical transition to the last movement has been aptly compared to the parallel section in Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and achieved pretty much the same build up in tension and anticipation.  As the last movement breaks forth confidently, the theme is built around the important chords heard way back in the first movement.  These incisive chords alternate with ingratiating contrasting ideas, as Schumann builds the momentum in a grand cascade of ideas and upbeat confidence so familiar to those who adore the remarkable songs for which he is so justly famous.

            This important work by the great German romantic genius of the mid-nineteenth century may be musicologically important for its ground-breaking use of consistent unification of musical ideas throughout, but all of that pales before the pleasure taken from simply hearing it.  It is a perfect reflection of Schumann’s joy in the first year of his marriage to a remarkably talented and good woman, and intimates nothing of his future, tragic mental illness and early death.  Ars longa, vita brevis.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan