Schumann Symphony no. 1, op. 38

This article has been marked as in need of a revisit. That’s where I feel like I didn’t do the piece justice or have more to say (usually because I didn’t know it nearly well enough or didn’t have the right perspective). I’ll keep the original article for posterity, but publish a new version that will eventually be linked here for my new take on it.

performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell

This is the symphony in the last post that I mentioned took me completely by surprise. I don’t know if I just didn’t listen to it well enough the first go round a few months ago, or was in a bad mood, or if my ear has become somewhat more attuned to this stuff, but I like this one. It was completed in 1841 and premiered with Mendelssohn on the podium.

It wouldn’t make it in a list of my top five favorite symphonies of all time; it would MAYBE make it into the top ten, but probably not. It’s not that I was blown over by how wonderful this piece was. It’s not even one I feel is a must-hear. It’s just really really really pleasant and enjoyable. It doesn’t have the drama of Tchaikovsky or the intensity of Mahler or sweeping swelling emotion of Rachmaninoff. It’s super duper German, and dare I say (this is completely an opinion) it sounds very Classical to me. Although the piece was finished in 1841 (more than a decade after Beethoven and Schubert died, and long after Mozart was dead, exactly fifty years, I think), it still leans more toward the Classical idiom than the Romantic symphonies I think of Brahms or Tchaikovsky or whomever writing (I know they were much later), but this sounds more to me like a Beethoven-era symphony than something written clearly after the establishment of the Romantic era.

Alhough this is Schumann’s first symphonic work, he was by no means an inexperienced composer. Prior to this piece, he’d already written Papillons, Carnaval, Kinderszenen, KreislerianaHumoreske, and both of his piano sonatas, among much else. Thanks to Mrs. Schumann, the daughter of his piano teacher, who did NOT want his daughter to marry this student of his, for suggesting to her husband that he try his hand at classical music.

I am not hugely familiar with Schumann’s piano works,  the two piano sonatas to some degree. His works come across to me as very German-sounding (which isn’t bad, it’s just not my image of the epitome of the Romantic style). For reference, Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 was finished this same year (Chopin dedicated his No. 2 to Schumann after the latter praised the former’s first ballade. Upon hearing the second, he expressed that it was nice, but nothing like the first. They didn’t really get along. They were also born the same year).

The introduction to this symphony is regal and very formal sounding, and I think my favorite movements are the first and third. The fourth movement has a theme based on the final movement of Kreisleriana (which was dedicated to Chopin, by the way). Symphony no. 1 isn’t too long, coming in at around a half hour.

After the dramatic brass introduction to the first movement (echoed by strings) there is a nice little soft bit in the woodwinds with strings in the background that sounds very much to me like a Beethoven-esque passage. It builds to a climax and introduces a lively and very pleasing theme in the strings. I really love how classical and clean and perfect this bit is. There’s something very nice about this symphony, and the title “Spring symphony” may related to what Wikipedia says that the Schumanns had to say of the piece:

The title of “Spring Symphony” was bestowed upon it, according to Clara’s diary, because of the Spring poems of Adolph Boettger. However, Schumann himself said he was merely inspired by his Liebesfrühling (spring of love). The last movement of the symphony also uses the final theme of Kreisleriana, and therefore recalls the romantic and fantastic inspiration of this piano composition.

I think one feels this in the lightness and happiness of the symphony. It’s just terribly pleasant to listen to, and at about a half hour in length, it isn’t’ unbearably long and boring. Each movement keeps your attention.

The scherzo is in a very obvious triple meter, with a very heavy theme (the opener) contrasted by a very light waltzy response that makes me think of fancily-dressed people politely floating around a fancy dinner party doing a fancy waltz in fancy shoes, without being pretentious.

The beginning almost feels ‘scherzo’-ish, not because it’s in a triple meter, but because it does almost feel ‘joking’ in its light and whimsical mood. There is also a nice A/B question/answer sort of thing going on in this movement.

All in all, this isn’t a symphony that makes me think deeply about life or pause to contemplate deeply what the composer meant or was going through to compel him to write such music. No, no, it’s just really nice. I think one hears that Schumann was just writing. This, to me, is absolute music. No symbolism, no concept album or program music here. Just happiness. And who couldn’t use an extra smile every now and then?


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