Schumann: Symphony No. 3 in E-Flat Major (“Rhenish”)
In September, 1850, the Schumanns moved to the Rhineland, where Robert was to become music director of the Düsseldorf orchestra. It was a radical change in their lives. Late in September they visited the ancient and honorable city of Cologne, overwhelmed by their first sight of the august cathedral there, bathed in sunlight. Anxious to make a good first impression on the proud folk of the Rhineland, Schumann began a symphony “of the Rhine:” the “Rhenish.”
Schumann dwells on the majesty of his chosen key and the imposing character French horns, trumpets, and timpani. The first movement is large sonata with no repeat and a prominent but quite false recapitulation before the real thing. The second movement, marked Scherzo, is in fact a Ländler, a bucolic folk-waltz, which Schumann meant to suggest morning on the Rhine. The third is a sonata-imbued intermezzo of three themes. The fourth, an “extra” movement, which serves to anticipate the finale, has to do with the Cologne Cathedral itself; the Schumanns had seen it in readiness to elevate the local archbishop to the rank of cardinal, and Robert subsequently headed his manuscript “like the musical accompaniment for a solemn ceremony.” Trombones enter here for the first time. Their chorale broadens into fugal development in triple time, then a magnificent, slower recapitulation. The last movement is one provincial mirth; at the end, in the French horns, there is a brief reference to the very first theme of the symphony.
Note, too, the movement titles in German, for the first time in Schumann’s symphonic work. The orchestration of the Schumann symphonies has traditionally been considered problematic of balance and figuration. Themes, for example, are often scored in octaves the way the thumb and little finger might legitimately emphasize them on the piano, but a pale effect when distributed to violin and cello. Schumann sometimes loses track of his brass registers, with resulting shrillness or heaviness. But I think some of our dissatisfaction has to do with the common knowledge that Schumann went mad, an extension of the king of thinking that says because Beethoven was deaf, he couldn’t have meant this or that. The conductor’s careful attention to the issues of balance will usually offset the problems, and it is no longer acceptable to perform Schumann’s works as re-scored by others.