The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Richard Freed

Schumann composed this Symphony in D minor in September 1841 and it was introduced as as his Symphony No. 2 on December 6 of that year, when Ferdinand David conducted it in Leipzig. Ten years later Schumann, who had not allowed the score to be published, undertook a substantial revision of it; he conducted the revised version in D?sseldorf in 1852, and the score was published the following year. As his three other symphonies had all seen publication by then, this became No. 4, and the opus number 120 was appended to the score after Schumann?s death. Hans Kindler conducted the NSO?s first performance of the work, on November 4, 1936; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent ones?in the rarely heard original version?on June 5, 6, 7 and 10, 1997.

The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. Duration, 27 minutes.

With the exception of piano music, which he composed throughout his life, Schumann tended to concentrate on a single category of music at a time in his creative efforts. In 1840 he produced an astounding quantity of songs, including the Dichterliebe and both of the Liederkreis cycles; 1842 was a chamber music year, in which he composed his three string quartets, the Piano Quartet and the well loved Piano Quintet; 1841 was a year for symphonies.

Schumann composed three symphonic works that year, in addition to the ?Concert Fantasy? which eventually became the first movement of his Piano Concerto. At the end of January he wrote his ?Spring? Symphony (No. 1 in B-flat); when spring actually came he composed the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, which he initially labeled ?Symphonette?; in September he produced his Symphony in D minor. As this was the second full-fledged symphony he completed, it was reasonably enough billed as ?Symphony No. 2? when it was given its premiere; as already noted, however, the score was withheld from publication until Schumann revised and reorchestrated it, ten years later. By that time he had reassigned the number 2 to his Symphony in C major (Op. 61) and brought out his ?Rhenish? Symphony as No. 3 (Op. 97); the D minor therefore was finally published as No. 4, and given an opus number appropriate to this revised enumeration.

The revisions Schumann made were extensive, in both form and orchestration. The two natural horns of the original version disappeared in favor of valved horns matching a second pair; a part for guitar in the slow movement was eliminated, and numerous doublings in the orchestral parts brought about the ?thickened texture? that was to distress so many of Schumann?s admirers. (One of them, Johannes Brahms, was so insistent on the superiority of the work?s original version that he had it published in the 1880s, over Clara Schumann?s strong protest.) In addition to modifying certain tempo markings and expanding the proportions of some of the individual movements, Schumann also indicated in his revision that the four movements should be played without pause; because of this, and the ?cyclic? reappearance of themes (or fragments of them) throughout the score, he considered for a time calling the work as ?Symphonic Fantasia.? (More than 70 years later, Jean Sibelius did introduce his own final symphony, which is in a single movement, under the title Fantasia sinfonica, but he too decided the work in question was really a symphony, and had the score published as ?Symphony No. 7.?)

One of Schumann?s most evocative orchestral tone-paintings is the atmospheric introduction to the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, in which thematic elements gradually take shape. The allegro (Lebhaft, in Schumann?s German marking) comes in with a vigorous statement of the theme that is to be the ?motto? throughout the work. The first movement?s course is a journey from darkness into light, culminating in an exultant blaze of D major which might be said to foreshadow the finale of Brahms?s symphony in that key (in that case, both originally and finally ?No. 2?).

The Romanze, brief and exquisitely fashioned, has a more direct connection with Brahms, who based the third movement of his own Third Symphony on this movement?s main theme, as a memorial gesture, nearly 30 years after Schumann?s death.

The theme of the scherzo, another of Schumann?s most successful symphonic movements, is basically an elaboration of the ?motto? motif, but it is also strikingly similar to the theme of the corresponding movement?a minuet?of the Symphony No. 1 in F minor of Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866). Schumann knew Kalliwoda, and both he and Clara performed as soloists with the orchestra Kalliwoda conducted in Munich; he must have known that Symphony in F minor, too, which was one of Kalliwoda?s most popular works. In any event, while the similarity of themes is striking enough to be mentioned, the one is not an exact duplicate of the other, and the relationship of Schumann?s scherzo theme to the ?motto? of his own Symphony in D minor is no less apparent. By way of pronounced contrast, this conspicuously energetic scherzo is provided with a particularly gentle trio, in B-flat.

The final movement, like the first, has a slow introduction; in this case it serves as a bridge from the quiet conclusion of the scherzo to the dramatically charged finale proper, which commences with a dramatic proclamation of the ?motto? theme and then cites other material from the preceding movements. A bustling orchestral build-up leads to a lusty fanfare from the horns and a robust L?ndler-like motif (unhinted-at before, but actually derived from the ?motto?) is introduced by the cellos during a brief respite before the final rush to the exuberant conclusion.