Symphony No. 3 (Schumann)
The Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” in E flat major, Op. 97 is the last of Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) symphonies to be composed, although not the last published. It was composed from November 2 to December 9, 1850, and comprises five movements:
- Scherzo: Sehr mäßig (in C major)
- Nicht schnell (in A-flat major)
- Feierlich (in E-flat minor)
The Third Symphony is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B♭, two bassoons, four french horns in E♭, two trumpets in E♭, three trombones, timpani and strings. Its premiere on February 6, 1851 in Düsseldorf, conducted by Schumann himself, was received with mixed reviews, “ranging from praise without qualification to bewilderment”. However according to Peter A. Brown, members of the audience applauded between every movement, and especially at the end of the work when the orchestra joined them in congratulating Schumann by shouting “hurrah!”.
Throughout his life, Schumann explored a diversity of musical genres, including chamber, vocal, and symphonic music. Although Schumann wrote an incomplete G minor symphony as early as 1832-33 (of which the first movement was performed on two occasions to an unenthusiastic reception), he only began seriously composing for the symphonic genre after receiving his wife’s encouragement in 1839. Schumann gained quick success as a symphonic composer following his orchestral debut with his warmly-received First Symphony, which was composed in 1841 and premiered in Leipzig with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. By the end of his career Schumann had composed a total of four symphonies. Also in 1841 he finished the work which was later to be published as his Fourth Symphony. In 1845 he composed his C major Symphony, which was published in 1846 as No. 2, and, in 1850, his Third Symphony. Therefore, the published numbering of the symphonies is not chronological. The reasoning for the “incorrect” numerical sequencing of the symphonies is because his Fourth Symphony was originally completed in 1841, but it was not well received at its Leipzig premiere. The lukewarm reception caused Schumann to withdraw the score and revise it ten years later in Düsseldorf. This final version was published in 1851 after the “Rhenish” Symphony was published.
The same year that Schumann composed his Third Symphony, he completed his Cello Concerto op. 129 which was published four years later. Schumann was inspired to write this symphony after a trip to the Rhineland with his wife. This journey was a happy and peaceful trip with Clara which felt to them as if they were on a pilgrimage. As a result of this trip, he incorporated elements of his journey and portrayed other experiences from his life in the music. The key of the symphony has been connected to Bach’s idea of E flat major and the Holy Trinity.
The first movement, "Lebhaft" (lively), follows the 19th century model of a large-scale sonata form. The symphony begins immediately with a heroic theme in E-flat major, scored for full orchestra. The strong hemiolic rhythm of the main theme returns throughout the movement giving an ever present forward push. This forward push allows for the melodies of this movement to soar over the bar lines. The transition moves from the tonic to submediant, G minor, with the use of a newly introduced motive in the strings consisting of energetic ascending eighth notes juxtaposed with material from the main theme. The subordinate theme is scored for winds and its less rhythmic drive has a gentler quality. The exposition unfolds with the return of the scale motif from the transition and main theme, ending in the dominant, B-flat. Schumann does not repeat the exposition, but rather has the strings and bassoon drop from unison B-flat to an F-sharp, leading to a triplet forte explosion in the unexpected key of G major marking the beginning of the development. The development section is composed mainly of the three main themes from the exposition. Schumann skilfully moves through a variety of keys for nearly 200 bars, never returning to E-flat, until a dominant arrival preceding the climactic and triumphant return of the main theme in the home key.
The second movement, "Sehr mäßig (very moderate), is in C major and takes the place of a Scherzo. The form of this movement is a synthesis of a traditional minuet and trio and theme variations. The opening theme is based on the ländler, a German folk dance. This is played out first in the lower strings and bassoons, and then is repeated and varied. The second theme with “trio” feeling is in A minor, played by the winds. Schumann uses a pedal point C throughout this section which is highly unusual, not because it is a pedal point, but rather because C is the third note instead of the root of A minor. After this middle section the rustic theme returns scored for full orchestra and thins out until only the celli and bassoons are playing the theme, ending with soft pizzicato.
The third movement, "Nicht schnell" (not fast), is in the subdominant, A-flat major. The omission of timpani and brass in combination with the static harmony (the movement never strays far or for long from A-flat), creates a moment of calm repose in the middle of the symphony. The thematic construction uses long beautiful themes that are constantly being pushed along by this friendly little motif of four chromatically ascending sixteenth notes, often on the fourth beat of a measure.
The Fourth movement, "Feierlich" (solemn), though written with three flats as the key signature, is in E-flat minor. The movement begins with a sforzando eight note E-flat minor chord in the strings that moves immediately into a pianissimo french horn and trombone chorale. This beautiful and hauntingly quiet low brass writing is a notoriously difficult spot in performances since the trombones haven’t played at all up until this point. This expansive theme is voiced by the winds and first violins in eight notes, accelerating the tempo by more than double the previous tempo, as the opening statement reaches its conclusion. Following the opening statement’s conclusion, the theme is used in imitation, mostly at the fourth and fifth, and combined with an accelerated version. After this, the tempo changes into a triple meter where the first theme undergoes a series of contrapuntal treatments. While the meter returns to a duple meter, the brass and winds play interwoven contrapuntal lines of the most expansive form of the theme while the strings push forward with constant 16th notes. This comes to a close on an E-flat minor chord, and after one beat’s rest an unexpected fanfare in B major which is then answered by the string in pianissimo, restating it in E-flat. While this is repeated the rhythmic motion slows down, and fragments of the theme can be heard at the end.
In the fifth movement, the piece returns to E-flat major in duple meter with the spirited feeling of a Finale. The first theme returns to the rustic dance feel from earlier in the symphony, scored for full orchestra. Sixteen bars later, a second, lighter but just as spirited theme appears. These themes are varied and imitated as the movement pushes exuberantly forward towards its heroic conclusion in E-flat major.
In general, Schumann used Beethoven’s symphonies as the main model for his symphonic writing, but he also used Schubert’s Ninth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s symphonies and concerti as points of reference. In particular, he used Mendelssohn as an example of how “songlike forms can be integrated into developmental themes.” In his survey on Schumann’s symphonies, Brown suggests that the main models for his Third Symphony are Beethoven’s Third and Sixth Symphonies, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
When evaluating the relationship between Schumann’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Third Symphony, there is the obvious connection between the tonal centers of each piece - they both share the same tonality. The relationship between Schumann’s Third Symphony and Beethoven’s Third Symphony is mostly evident in the first movement. Although as was mentioned earlier, the key of E-flat major is known to have religious associations, this tonality is also generally perceived as heroic due to Beethoven’s Third Symphony “Eroica”. Schumann begins his first movement with a theme in the same key as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. This main theme feels so typically heroic and triumphant that it could easily be mistaken as material for a triumphant finale movement. This is due to the manner in which he repeats this melody, each time with more proud and triumphant treatments. The main model for the Rhenish Symphony is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastorale”. One of the most obvious relationships is that there are five movements in each of the symphonies. The next most obvious similarity between Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Schumann’s Third Symphony is that in both symphonies, the fourth and the fifth movements are played without break. Aside from the similarities in the large scale layout of each work, the musical similarity can be seen in the second movement. As in the second movement of Beethoven’s sixth Symphony, the second movement of Schumann’s Third Symphony is a musical depiction of the flowing Rhine river as in Beethoven’s work the second movement is a depiction of a flowing Brook. In both pieces, this imagery is due to the flowing eighth notes in a wave contour. One of the clearest differences between Beethoven’s and Schumann’s approaches to using programmatic elements in their symphonies is that Beethoven actually left a title to his second movement: “Szene am Bach” (Scene at the Brook). Schumann also originally left a title which translated to “Morning on the Rhine”, but that was removed before publication. Schumann’s reason for removing the title is because of his belief that providing the extramusical program would force a certain opinion of the music upon the listener. This is supported by the following quote from Schumann: “If the eye is once directed to a certain point, the ear can no longer judge independently.” Schumann also once said that "we must not show our heart to the world: a general impression of a work of art is better; at least, no preposterous comparisons can then be made." In the case of Schumann’s work, the idea which influenced this movement is very clear even without an explicit title. Aside from the programmatic elements, Brown also draws a link between the two works based on the function of the fifth movement. Although some analysts believe that the fourth movement can be seen as a slow introduction to the fifth movement, that is highly unlikely since the fourth movement is longer and more complex than the fifth. Brown’s opinion, and a more likely explanation of the fifth movement’s function, is that it is used as an extreme contrast to the preceding movement as was the case in Beethoven’s symphony. In both of these works, the fourth movement is a highly “specialized” movement depicting something very specific, in Beethoven’s case, a thunderstorm, and in Schumann’s case, the procession in the elevation of a cardinal in a cathedral. In both these cases, the following movement contains highly contrasting music. In Schumann’s case, a much livelier movement and in Beethoven’s case, the last movement is the depiction of “cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm”.
In addition to having Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony’s programmatic elements as a model, a minor relationship between Schumann’s Third Symphony and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique could also be drawn.The program for Beethoven’s work was based on his perception of nature around him, but there was no detailed story behind it. In the case of Berlioz, he had a whole story to back up his work. This is also the case with the fourth movement of Schumann’s Third Symphony where he uses his experience of witnessing the elevation of a cardinal at a Cathedral in Cologne which is a more detailed story while Beethoven’s program seemed to be more out of pure inspiration.
Notes and references
- John Daverio and Eric Sams. "Schumann, Robert, §18: Director in Dusseldorf, 1850–54" In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40704pg18 (accessed April 20, 2010).
- Peter A. Brown, The European Symphony from ca. 1800 to ca. 1930: Germany and the Nordic Countries (Bloomington,IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 291.
- John Daverio and Eric Sams. "§4: Discoveries and disappointments: Leipzig, 1830–33” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40704pg4 (accessed April 20, 2010).
- John Daverio and Eric Sams. "Schumann, Robert, §11: The symphonic year, 1841 ." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40704pg11 (accessed April 20, 2010).
- Louise Elvira Cuyler, The Symphony, 2nd ed., (Warren, MI: Harmonie Park Press, 1995), 102.
- David R. Maxwell, “Theological Symbolism in the Organ Works of J.S. Bach”, http://www.mtio.com/articles/bissboo7.htm (accessed April 21, 2010)
- Hanning, Concise History of Western Music, 432.
- Brown, European Symphony, 278.
- Brown, European Symphony, 278.
- Gerald Abraham, ed., Schumann; a symposium (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952), 181.
- Brown, European Symphony, 278.
- Brown, European Symphony, 290.
- Brown, European Symphony, 284.