Spring Symphonies: 11/60 Schumann Symphony No 3 'Rhenish'

Poor Robert Schumann - the genius of the Romantic movement was on the crest of a wave when he wrote this work.  It was finished this symphony in just over a month in 1850, it was premiered in Dusseldorf in February of the next year to acclaim on the night but to a mixed critical reception.  With three other great symphonies (the Fourth was later only by an accident of later publication) under his belt by that stage one might have expected him to go on to complete a set of nine which would rival Beethoven's or maybe a dozen more given his compositional skill.  In late February 1854 he threw himself off a bridge into the river Rhine following years of mental illness and instability. He told the boatmen who hauled him out to take him to an asylum where he was incarcerated until his death in 1856: his wife Clara was not allowed to see him until two days before he died.  She visited with Brahms, and there the manacled older, dying composer lapped wine from her hand like a dog.  He was unable to speak. Poor Schumann.

So often in art the tragedy merely accents the greatness.  Here is a great five movement symphony which seeks to do something different - but it seems to come from better times for Schumann.  Unlike the Beethoven and Bruckner I've covered, Schumann was not looking, I suspect, to be monumental in this symphony.  It is not a symphony that seeks a moment of ecstatic realisation - though it has one movement of great profundity.  It does have a unity of material and some significant common patterns between movements - it is clever but not showy.

It begins without clearing it’s throat with a movement which some people have compared to Beethoven's Eroica - which is I think a bit of a dead end.  It does feature some fantastic writing for horns.  The sunny facility of this movement is what grabs me, the music moves swiftly and gracefully with a beaming smile.  The melodies overlap and play like the eddies in the Rhine with an easy confidence.

The wave-like surges in the second movement are another touch point with the river of the title and it has a charming pace and variety to it.  Schumann’s grace is undeniable and his music feels almost balletic in it’s flow - there’s a lovely central section over a pedal note which is distant and atmospheric.  The surging music swings out once more with more con

The third movement is one of those gentle movements liked by Schubert, Brahms and their ilk which could really be a song in another life. More beautiful flowing music and Schumann’s orchestration in these simple movements seems to me to be just exquisite. The end of this movement again has a moment of distant moment - a pedal note again supporting woodwind in a fragile harmonic place.

There is something rather troubled here - scarcely mentioned darkness.  It is all converging to a point as we will see, but taken as a whole the three movements have presented a happy front but a dark layer lies just below the surface.  The next movement reveals all.

The stately tread here is said to represent the enthronement of a new Cardinal that the Schumanns saw in Cologne Cathedral on their Rhenish holiday which inspired the work. The event, the setting, the ritual caused Schumann to pen what is in my view some of his greatest music.  It is a movement, almost standing alone, in the abstract of huge complexity of voice, tone and melodic, rhythmical and harmonic interplay.  These voices weave and sing in a way which reminds one of the lines of a complex Bach choral work.  It is extremely telling if not rushed, it rises to a great brass fanfare. It intones in a religious fashion but I think it’s secret is to  slowly to focus from its dark congregational solemnity into a desolate, singular isolation.  I feel nowhere closer to Schumann’s real intent than in this music.

The last movement returns us to the upbeat confidence of the first movement.  It has a jaunty atmosphere and clever wrinkles with mighty horn calls and major key jolliness.  It quotes from its siblings notably in the coda where it recreates something of the austerity of the fourth movement but transmogrifies it into something busier and faster and exciting.  Seen as a whole this is a marvellous, well-connected symphony of real thrust and lyricism, but within is depths some darkness lurks and that to me is telling.

Here’s Christophe Eschenbach in live performance where the Cardinal is enthroned rather quickly:

But for contrast - here’s how the movement can sound with an ear for the tragedy therein. Karajan - Berlin Philharmonic



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