Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 97, Rhenish

ROBERT SCHUMANN

BORN: June 8, 1810. Zwickau, Saxony (now Germany)

DIED: July 29, 1856. Endenich, a suburb of Bonn, Prussia (now Germany)

COMPOSED: Begun November 2, completed December 9, 1850

WORLD PREMIERE: February 6, 1851. The composer conducted in Düsseldorf

US PREMIERE: February 2, 1861. Theodor Eisfeld conducted the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 6, 1914. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—November 2015. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted.

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones (in the 4th and 5th movements only), timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 32 mins

THE BACKSTORY More than a natural phenomenon, the Rhine has been a political object and the cradle of legend and poetry, and, though it rises in Switzerland and drains into the North Sea in the Netherlands, the Germans have always thought of the river as very much their own. Schumann and the Rhineland were new to each other in 1850. Except for a period of study at Heidelberg, a winter in Vienna, and occasional travels with his wife, Clara, he had lived in his native Saxony all his life. When his friend Ferdinand Hiller left his conducting post in Düsseldorf, he proposed Schumann as his successor. On March 31, 1850, Schumann formally accepted his appointment as Düsseldorf’s Municipal Music Director.

The history of Schumann’s relations with the world of orchestras and conducting is complex and troubled. As long ago as 1839, Clara had noted in her diary that “it would be best if [Robert] composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano. . . . His compositions are all orchestral in feeling.” In 1832, Schumann began but did not complete a Symphony in G minor; otherwise, from 1830 (the year of his official Opus 1, the Abegg Variations) until 1839, he composed only piano music. 1841 was his big orchestral year, in which he wrote the Spring Symphony (No. 1 in B-flat); the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale in E, Opus 52, which he sometimes referred to as his “Symphonette”; and the D minor Symphony, which is now known almost exclusively in its revised form of 1851 and whose number—Four—reflects the date of that later edition. In 1841 he also wrote the Fantasy for piano and orchestra, which four years later, revised and with an intermezzo and finale attached, became the first movement of the Piano Concerto. There is also an unfinished Symphony in C minor from that year.

When he arrived in Düsseldorf in September 1850, he had much to look forward to. The Düsseldorfers did everything they could to make their new music director feel welcome, unleashing an exhausting round of speeches, serenades, celebratory concerts, banquets, and balls.

Schumann’s creative energies were not to be suppressed, and in just fifteen October days he composed his Cello Concerto. The day he finished it he conducted the first of his ten subscription concerts. But the Düsseldorf venture would quickly turn into disaster. Clearly unequal to the requirements of his position, Schumann was asked to resign in October 1852. The matter was smoothed over for the moment, but a year later he had conducted his last concert. Always subject to depressions and the survivor of more than one suicide attempt, Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on February 27, 1854, and was rescued and committed into Dr. Richarz’s hospital at Endenich, where he died two and a half years later. But all that is another story. The Rhenish Symphony, which Schumann composed between November 2 and December 9, 1850, reflects his optimism in the face of new challenges and a fresh start among a people more outgoing than any he had known and whose ebullience delighted him.

THE MUSIC Schumann begins with one of his most glorious themes, a powerfully forward-thrusting idea, part of whose energy is in its artful cross rhythm. The tension generated at the outset pervades the entire movement, and the opening theme itself is never absent for long. The spirit of the movement, characterized by minimal contrast and relaxation, is signature Schumann, as is the highly individual touch of introducing new material at the end.

The Scherzo is an agreeably galumphing country dance, with a secondary idea shared by the main part of the movement and its rather brooding trio. “Morning on the Rhine” was Schumann’s original title for the Scherzo. The pace relaxes still more for the next piece. It is not really a slow movement, but something more by way of a middle-tempo intermezzo, an original genre with Schumann.

Then comes the symphony’s first truly slow music. In September 1850, the Schumanns made the thirty-mile trip to Cologne to witness the installation of Cardinal Archbishop von Geissel in the cathedral. Schumann was stunned by this, the largest Gothic building in northern Europe, and he was excited by the splendor of the ceremony. The fourth movement of the Rhenish Symphony is his musical monument to a building that was almost as much a national totem as the river by which it stands. It is a movement of remarkable rhythmic subtlety and one in which Schumann skillfully uses the evocative properties of an antique style. He reserves the sound of trombones for this tone picture and (with effective restraint) for the finale. This fifth movement begins by being uncomplicatedly cheery; only gradually does it reveal itself as a kind of extension or completion of the cathedral section. As it moves to its brilliant close, the finale makes allusion as well to the symphony’s opening.—Michael Steinberg

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2019)