Schumann: Symphony no 3 in E flat major

The ‘Rhenish’ was Schumann’s last symphony (the symphony we know as No. 4 was actually written after No. 1), and is general regarded as his brightest and most abandoned: at this stage he had made the decision to move away from academic, keyboard-bound composition to a freer, more spontaneous method of developing musical ideas in his head.

In 1850 Schumann was appointed conductor of the orchestra at Düsseldorf, and moved there with his wife Clara and their growing family. Though the appointment proved to be a mistake – Schumann was by then too brittle and absent-minded to be a decent conductor – the change of scene lifted him, for a while at least, out of the cycle of illness and depression into which he had descended, and the result is a work of structural clarity and rich melody. This symphony, as its subtitle suggests, was written partly as a celebration of the landscape, history and legends of the Rhineland, an inspiration to generations of German composers, most notably Richard Wagner.

The symphony is in five movements rather than the more usual four. The haunting ‘extra’ fourth movement was powerfully inspired by the grandeur of a ceremony Schumann witnessed on a visit to Cologne Cathedral.

The first movement begins with a powerful syncopated fanfare-like statement on violins, supported by wind and brass. Two scale-like motifs combine with fragments of the first statement, and modulate into the wistful minor-key second subject in the woodwind. Motifs and melodies go through various transformations until the exposition ends in a triumphant dominant major.

A long development section follows, and the recapitulation is grandly announced by the four horns, followed by the reappearance of the first and second subjects working their way back to the home key via a short coda.

The perky second movement, an odd kind of Scherzo, is one of Schumann’s most masterly and innovative symphonic creations. The melodies are based on Ländler, German folk-dances, and the structure is a highly original mélange of Binary, Variation, and Sonata forms.

It begins with a bucolic tune on violas, cellos, and bassoons, soon joined by the rest of the orchestra. This theme is developed using ascending staccato figures, before a new minor-key tune is introduced by the horns, then passed on to the winds. Further development follows, using both of the main themes. Eventually the main theme returns, strikingly shifting into a full-brass coda, and the movement calms, coming to an end with soft pizzicato strings.

The gentle third movement, a kind of lyrical Intermezzo, opens with a woodwind melody, continued by the strings. Note the two important motifs – a chromatically ascending semi quaver figuration, and a quaver motif. The violas and bassoons begin the central development section with a new theme, which is developed in combination with the two motifs. Finally, the main theme returns, and the movement ends in a peaceful plagal major.

The mood changes now, quite suddenly, with the interpolation of the dark and stately slow fourth movement, another highly innovative creation, rich in imaginative counterpoint. It is constructed from two themes, one broad and formal, the other shorter, more angular, operated on by Schumann to give something like the effect of a crepuscular Bach fugue, a mood broken as brass and wind erupt towards the end in a blazing chorale.

Knowing what we do about the tragic side of his life, and its end, it is easy to forget that Schumann’s natural personality was an optimistic and sunny one, and that jauntiness comes through now in the quasi-rustic, merry Finale. Several different themes, including the major statement from the preceding movement, are introduced and treated with great freedom, and the stunning sequence of modulations from one key to the next that follows is, believe me, much easier to listen to than to describe! It seems to whirl its country-dancing way to a highly satisfying ending in the home key of E flat major.

We hope you will find this great symphony a happy and positive experience this evening, and certainly one to help dispel the myth that Schumann’s later years were a time of unrelieved darkness and decline.