Robert Schumann is considered one of the finest representatives of German Romantic music. And yet his symphonies continue to be undervalued.
First Symphony in B flat major, op. 38
Robert Schumann composed his first symphony in January 1841 in Leipzig, sketching it out in just four days. The composer was under a lot of pressure at that time. He was already a successful composer of chamber music, including piano music and lieder. But in order to be able to make a living from composing he needed to achieve success in what was then regarded as the epitome of the composer's art: the symphony. As a pianist, Schumann had little experience in this area, nor had he received the appropriate training.
He was assisted by two particular circumstances. A few months earlier, in September 1840, he had married. His wife Clara was both a successful pianist and an ambitious woman. She encouraged him - perhaps one should say she pressured him - to finally compose something for orchestra. He was also helped by his friend Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was then not only one of the most highly-regarded composers in Europe, but also head of the most important musical institution in Germany: the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Mendelssohn accepted the score, with some corrections, and conducted the premiere on 31 March 1841. The reaction in the Leipzig press was positive: the newspapers reported that the work had been received 'with great applause'.
In this symphonic debut, Schumann does not seem - at first glance - to try anything new. The first movement - in sonata form - is followed by a slow Larghetto, a lively Scherzo and a finale which is also in sonata form. But in fact Schumann's individual style is evident, especially in the first movement. Instead of developing the themes in the central section, he introduces a series of free and playful variations. This lightness certainly seems to have contributed to the fact that the work has become known as the 'Spring Symphony'. This association was part of Schumann's original idea. In his sketches the movements are called 'Beginning of Spring', 'Evening', 'Happy Games' and 'Height of Spring'.
Second Symphony in C major, op. 61
Schumann's C major symphony is regarded as the most ambitious of his four symphonies. If one looks at the notes made by both composer and his wife Clara at this time, it is clear he felt a sense of liberation when he finished it. The years before had been overshadowed by a creative crisis. While his wife's fame as a pianist grew - and she provided the family's income - Schumann was plagued by mysterious illnesses and psychological problems. His hopes of being employed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus came to nothing. In 1844, the couple moved to the conservative city of Dresden, where Schumann was able to live a largely anonymous existence. He began to study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which had lain forgotten until just a few years before, when Mendelssohn had begun to perform it in Leipzig. Schumann's interest in Bach's polyphony is evident when one listens to the second symphony.
That Schumann found work on this symphony very difficult is clear from the fact that it took a long time. From the initial sketches of September 1845 to the completion of the work in November 1846, the composer laboured for more than a year. The premiere, with Mendelssohn as conductor, took place at the Leipzig Gewandhaus on 5 November 1846.
The symphony has a traditional four movement structure. The first movement is in sonata form, followed by a quick Scherzo and a melodious Adagio. The most important movement, however, is the final Allegro molto vivace, which breaks the classical form with many surprising twists, new themes and quotations from works by Schumann himself as well as other composers. Audiences quickly came to appreciate the short middle movements, while Schumann shortened the longer outer movements following the first performance - doubtless on account of the reviews published in musical journals, which criticised the symphony as bulky and confusing.