Radical Romanticism: Schumann’s Symphony No. 4

Radical Romanticism: Schumann’s Symphony No. 4

On October 18, 20 and 21, legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman returns to the Houston Symphony for our Perlman Plays and Conducts program. In addition to performing Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Perlman will also conduct Schumann’s Symphony No. 4. In this post, learn more Schumann and this fascinating work.

Though Robert Schumann’s Symphony in D minor is known as his Fourth, he began working on it in June 1841, only a few months after the premiere of his First Symphony. In 1840, Schumann had focused his creative energies on songs for voice and piano, producing an astonishing three song cycles (Liederkreis, Frauenliebe und –leben and Dichterliebe), which remain cornerstones of the German lieder repertoire. In 1841, he turned to orchestral music.

A Symphony Composed Twice

A lithograph of Robert Schumann created by Josef Kriehuber in Vienna in 1839.

This was a pivotal time in Schumann’s life. After a courtship of five years and a protracted legal battle with her father (who opposed the match), Schumann had finally married the piano virtuoso Clara Wieck on September 12, 1840. Schumann completed the first draft of his First Symphony in only four days the following January, and after a few tweaks it was premiered to great acclaim by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra led by Felix Mendelssohn on March 31. In the following months, Schumann wrote his Overture, Scherzo and Finale and the first movement of what would become his Piano Concerto. Capping off this remarkably productive period, he finished a draft of the Symphony in D minor over the course of the first week in June. In a diary entry of May 31, Clara noted “Robert’s mind is very creative now, and he began a symphony yesterday which is to consist of one movement, but with an Adagio and finale. I have heard nothing of it as yet, but from seeing Robert’s doings, and from hearing a D minor echoing wildly in the distance, I know in advance that this will be another work that is emerging from the depths of his soul.”

Where his First Symphony had been relatively conventional, his new symphony would be experimental and unorthodox. Instead of writing a symphony with four clearly delineated movements, Schumann sought to fuse the traditional four movements, creating an unbroken, immersive flow of music. Furthermore, while his First Symphony had been a bright, cheerful work inspired by thoughts of springtime, this new piece would be darker and more dramatic.

Franz Liszt, photographed by Herman Biow in 1843.

Schumann completed the orchestration of the symphony by October 4, and the premiere took place once again with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on December 6. To help draw attention to the concert, Franz Liszt, the most famous piano virtuoso of the day, agreed to appear and play a duet with Clara (who had considerable star-power in her own right). Perhaps predictably, he seems to have stolen the show. It did not help that Mendelssohn was unavailable to conduct Schumann’s new symphony (Clara complained that the orchestra did not play as well as it could have), and many audience members were confused by its unusual form. Critics, however, were generally positive, and Schumann hoped to sell the work to his publisher. Unfortunately, the publisher declined, fearing that this new symphony would compete with the sales of Schumann’s First Symphony.

Schumann put the work aside until 10 years later, after he had composed two other symphonies and become the music director of the orchestra in Dusseldorf. While working to orchestrate a symphony by Burgmüller left incomplete at that composer’s untimely death, he was inspired to return to his D minor symphony. He revised and reorchestrated it, and when the new version was performed at the Lower Rhine Music Festival on May 15, 1853, it met with resounding success and was published soon thereafter as Schumann’s Fourth Symphony. Though the original version has its fans (notably Johannes Brahms), the revised version is the one most often performed today.

Radical Romanticism

The symphony begins with a slow, brooding introduction based on a winding figure in the violins, violas and bassoons:


Throughout the symphony, the music will maintain the feverish, passionate quality of the introduction, even in moments of lightness and joy. This intensity is characteristic of Schumann’s Romanticism. Though the entire nineteenth century is often labelled as the Romantic era in music history textbooks, Schumann was one of the few composers who self-consciously identified as a Romantic during this time, and his music was powerfully influenced by the Romantic movement in literature. Though it is difficult to summarize Romanticism, Romantic writers and poets explored themes of emotion, irrationality, the supernatural, nature, childhood, horror, the sublime, dreams, memories and irony. The spirit of Romanticism suffuses this work in particular, perhaps the most Romantic of all Schumann’s symphonies.

In a masterful transition (one of the passages Schumann revised, incidentally–you can hear the original version here), the music gradually accelerates as a new figure appears in the strings. This new, driving motif becomes the main idea of the faster main section of the movement. Normally, a section known as an exposition would now unfold: a first theme would be linked by transitional material to a contrasting second theme in a new key. Instead, Schumann continues to develop the main idea, almost obsessively. The music does move from D minor to F major, brightening somewhat, and there are some new secondary ideas, but the main idea of the movement is always present throughout.

An engraved portrait of Clara Schumann by Em. Raerentzen & Co., 1842.

It was characteristic of Schumann’s Romanticism that he sought to make the familiar appear strange, and in many of his works he takes a radical, highly idiosyncratic and unconventional approach to form. His focus here on a single musical idea is more characteristic of older composers like Bach than of Mozart or Beethoven, Schumann’s more recent forebears. Schumann had a great interest in the music of Bach and other older composers, and was likely exploring new ways to incorporate their musical logic into a symphonic structure.

In the original version of the symphony, the music went straight from the exposition into a more developmental section. Perhaps in an effort to clarify the structure of the piece, Schumann added a repeat of the exposition when he revised the work (Mozart and Beethoven both normally repeated the expositions of their symphonies). After the repeat, the development begins with a long, unsettlingly dissonant note. Traditionally, the development takes the main ideas of the exposition and develops them through a process of fragmentation, recombination and harmonic instability. Schumann’s development begins this way at first, but because he focused on the main idea of the movement so much in the exposition, he now begins to introduce new themes in the development: the normal functions of exposition and development are reversed.

The first new idea takes the form of a portentous trombone motif that emerges above tempestuous cellos. This soon leads to a more heroic, dotted-rhythm theme in the woodwinds that is punctuated by the main idea in the strings. Last, a lyrical, vocal melody emerges in the violins that is rhythmically derived from the trombone motif.

Normally, the development leads back to a recapitulation, which resolves the tension with a reprise of the main themes of the exposition in the home key of the work; here, however, there is no need to reprise the exposition, because all of the real themes were introduced in the development. Instead, Schumann extends the development nearly to the end of the movement, allowing the new themes to evolve and interact with each other as the harmonies churn tumultuously from one key to another. When the music does return to the home key, it returns not to the dark key of D minor, but a brilliant, frenzied D major.

Recurring Characters

In the original version, the loud, blazing D major chords that end the first movement land unexpectedly on the soft, unstable A minor chord that begins the second movement without a pause. In the revised version, Schumann indicates that the orchestra should pause slightly before the new movement begins (likely remembering how the public had been confused by the original version), although the two movements are still linked. The second movement takes a slower tempo and is titled “Romanza” or “Romance,” suggesting a song-like vocal work. Indeed, the original inversion included an unwritten, ad libitum part for guitar, conjuring images of serenading troubadours.

Caspar David Friedrich’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” is a prime example of German Romanticism in painting.

The melancholy melody that begins the Romance is virtually always performed as a duet for solo oboe and solo cello, but the indication for a solo cello only appears crossed-out in the original version. In both versions, it seems that Schumann wanted half the cello section to play the melody, not just a solo cello. Nevertheless, conductors almost always choose to follow Schumann’s crossed-out indication rather than his final one, and the solo cello has become an ingrained part of the performing tradition of this piece. It may not be what Schumann wanted, but it sounds lovely just the same.

This melody leads to the return of the brooding music that began the symphony. Throughout the work, themes from previous movements recur in later ones. Though other composers had used this technique before, Schumann took it to another level in this symphony. Many have compared the way Schumann uses this technique of thematic return to the way memories resurface or characters return in contemporary novels. This brooding music morphs into a lilting violin solo before returning to the oboe-cello duet.

After a brief pause, we plunge into the third movement, a forceful scherzo. Italian for “joke,” the scherzo replaced the minuet as the typical third movement of a symphony in the early nineteenth century. Scherzos typically retain the dance-like character and triple meter of the minuet, but are often faster and wilder than their courtly predecessors. Both scherzos and minuets usually feature a contrasting middle section, and this one is no exception. The surprise, however, is that the contrasting middle section consists of the return of the lilting violin solo melody from the previous movement, now played by the entire section. After a reprise of the opening scherzo, the lilting melody returns, but gradually disintegrates.

The quiet passage that follows soon grows into a grand, solemn crescendo. Accompanied by wisps of the main idea from the first movement, the brass intone a noble and mysterious rising figure. This inspired passage accelerates to the fast finale, which arrives with the return of the heroic, dotted-rhythm theme from the development of the first movement. This theme, now in D major, becomes the main idea of the finale (interestingly, Schumann made some substantial changes to this theme when he revised the symphony—compare the original to the revised version, which is more concentrated and economical). This time, the exposition unfolds as expected, and breathless dance rhythms permeate a transitional theme full of surprising harmonic twists and turns, leading to a sweeter, more lyrical second theme.

After an exposition repeat (not included in the original version), the development begins with a long, dissonant note (much as the development of the first movement began). The heroic, dotted-rhythm theme then becomes the subject of a fugue, a complex type of music in which a main idea is passed from one part to another. Once again, Schumann subverts expectations when it comes time for the recapitulation—he omits the reprise of the heroic theme altogether, skipping to the dancing, harmonically unstable transitional theme and returning to D major with the sweet, lyrical second theme.

Another long dissonant note announces the beginning of the frenetic coda, which becomes faster and faster as the symphony races towards its ending. Here too, the heroic theme is absent; most of the material of the coda is based on the dancing transitional theme. The ending of the symphony is certainly thrilling and emphatically in D major, but does it completely resolve the feverish, Romantic passion of all that came before? Perhaps it is not meant to. The Romantics prized open endings, irony and the unexpected, and Schumann’s symphony certainly seems to be in harmony with their ideals.

Given the symphony’s highly unconventional structure, it is not surprising that the audience found the original version puzzling. What is more remarkable was that with a few deft repetitions and revisions, Schumann was able to make this radical work intelligible to his contemporaries. Indeed, it has remained popular ever since. All of Schumann’s innovations serve to integrate the movements of the symphony and maintain a powerful forward momentum, like a well-written novel with a gripping plot full of surprising twists and turns. The symphony invites listeners to imagine their own Romantic narratives as they listen to this passionate and fascinating work. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 on October 18, 20 & 21, 2018! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2024–25 Subscriptions On Sale Now!

Subscribe today for savings, priority seating, presale access to Yo-Yo Ma, and special perks!