Robert Schumann and his Four Symphonies

As Sir John Eliot Gardiner completes his survey of Robert Schumann’s symphonies with the LSO, we investigate the music that reveals a less familiar side of this Romantic composer par excellence.

I think Schumann learned his craft in cahoots with Mendelssohn. They both lived in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schumann’s Spring Symphony, among other works. Although Schumann is a different beast, there are Mendelssohn’s fingerprints in his orchestration.’ 
Sir John Elliot Gardiner

Robert Schumann completed his four symphonies during the most prolific period of his compositional career, from 1841 to 1851, and in the years since they’ve fascinated composers and conductors from Mendelssohn and Mahler to Leonard Bernstein and Sir Simon Rattle. Thanks both to digital streaming and the publication of his letters and writings in the 1990s, Schumann’s music has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years, but the symphonies are yet to gain the popular status afforded to those of Brahms and Beethoven.


The Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the city where Mendelssohn conducted the premiere of Schumann's First Symphony in 1841

Before writing his symphonies, Schumann had focused on piano music, composing detailed, emotionally-charged portraits in miniature which he grouped into sets, such as Kinderszenen, Papillons and Carnaval. Then, in the 1840s, he branched out into composing songs, chamber music and orchestral works. In some ways the symphonies are a natural extension of Schumann's piano writing, but they are also fast-moving and realised on a large scale, reflecting a different side of Schumann’s ambitions as a composer:

‘Really, as one of the successors to Beethoven, Schumann tried his upmost to make a case for abstract music on a symphonic canvas, to be the equivalent of poetry or the novel – to be a literary equivalent of those works in musical terms.’ Sir John Elliot Gardiner

Composed little more than a decade after Beethoven released his Ninth Symphony into the world, Schumann’s symphonies are, by comparison, modest, clear-cut and classically structured. One of Beethoven’s symphonic hallmarks was to link together movements, threading his symphonies through with a narrative – such as the life of a Hero (‘Eroica’) or more abstractly a 'darkness-to-light' trajectory, as in the Fifth Symphony. There is no through-narrative in Schumann’s Third Symphony, though each of its five movements paint vivid, contrasting musical scenes – a blustery, sea-faring opening, a rustic dance, and a slow movement which uses horns to suggest the fearful beauty of a Gothic cathedral.

austere and here

Funereal music for horns and trombones in the fourth movement of Schumann's Third Symphony

Schumann was a close colleague of Felix Mendelssohn’s (from whom he learned technique in orchestration and conducting), and his orchestral writing has some of the fleet-footedness and transparency of that other Rhenish master’s music. Mendelssohn furthermore supported first performances of Schumann’s works in Leipzig in the 1830s. However, Schumann’s musical language is elusive and understated, without the sweeping melodic immediacy which has won over audiences to Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish symphonies. What’s more, Schumann's orchestrations suffered from revisions after the composer adapted the works for performances in Düsseldorf which he conducted himself in the 1850s. John Eliot Gardiner explains:

‘In his own admission, Schumann was a lesser conductor [than Mendelssohn]. As a belt-and-braces approach, he tended to double up instruments in the winds, which means the second version of the D minor symphony (No 4) is very imposing, but doesn’t have the transparency, the elegance or the fire of the original, the 1841 version.

‘In the past, conductors like Mahler decided Schumann wasn’t so good at orchestration, and they decided to retouch his writing. But I don’t feel it’s in the least necessary. Schumann’s orchestration, which he learnt from his colleague Mendelssohn, is incredibly transparent, and revealing of his personality and his turbulence. For that you have to be incredibly alert to the mood changes. You hear beautiful melodies, but there’s a subterranean effort below the surface, there’s subversion.’

Gardiner goes on to suggest that Schumann’s music lends itself to the chamber-orchestra style of playing while standing, which is also how Mendelssohn would have conducted Schumann’s symphonies:

‘Without chairs the strings can stand closer together – they can hear each other and the sight lines are better – They can play like soloists. Chamber orchestras have been standing to play for yonks – but it gives extra energy. With Schumann it’s important – his sound palette is so full of light and shade, tension, suffering and pain. He’s the par-excellence Romantic composer, and his musical language is elusive. It doesn’t obviously come from Beethoven, or Mozart or Haydn, it’s really unique. So the standing isn’t the main thing. The main thing is coming to terms with Schumann’s musical language, which is very tricky.'

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Schumann's Third and First Symphonies with the LSO on Thursday 7 and Sunday 10 February. These performances will also be captured for release on our recording label LSO Live.

Orchestra's Choice: Schumann: Also on our blog, LSO players share stories about their favourite music by Schumann.

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