The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, "Rhenish"

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Peter Laki

Robert Schumann's appointment as music director in Düsseldorf in 1850 promised the beginning of a new career for the 40-year-old composer, who had gone through a series of severe emotional and artistic crises in the previous six years. In 1844, following a serious nervous breakdown, he had sold the journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik of which he had been the proprietor, editor, and chief music critic, and moved from Leipzig to Dresden with his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck, and their two children. (Four more children were born to the Schumanns in Dresden, and another two in Düsseldorf.)

The Dresden years did not fulfill Schumann's expectations. The concert life was less active than in Leipzig. The main musical institution, instead, was the opera, where Schumann had to face a formidable rival by the name of Richard Wagner. The latter's Tannhäuser and Lohengrin were written while the two men were living in the same city (though Lohengrin's first performance fell through due to Wagner's advocacy of political revolution and subsequent flight from Germany). Schumann's own Genoveva, completed in 1848, was not accepted for performance in Dresden, and was finally produced in Leipzig, Schumann's old home, in 1850.

By that time, however, the call from Düsseldorf had come. A friend of Schumann's, the noted composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885), was relinquishing his post as music director and recommended Schumann as his successor. It was difficult for Schumann to leave his native Saxony for the Rhineland, about 400 miles to the West. Although he had occasionally conducted orchestras before, this was his first full-time appointment as a conductor. He felt he could not turn down this extraordinary offer, and in September 1850 he and his family took up residence in Düsseldorf. The success of the new symphony completed soon after his arrival in the Rhineland (and appropriately nicknamed "Rhenish") promised a new beginning for Schumann, who seemed finally on his way to recovering from years of poor health. Alas, this promise was not to be fulfilled; after only two seasons, his relations with the orchestra became troubled.  He attempted suicide early in 1854 and spent the rest of his life in an asylum.

But back in 1850, Schumann seemed full of energy, thrilled by the prospect of new artistic activities. In three months, he completed two major orchestral works, the Symphony in E-flat and the Cello Concerto. However, while Schumann soon conducted highly acclaimed performances of the symphony in Düsseldorf and elsewhere, the concerto, curiously, remained unperformed during his lifetime.

If the four symphonies take pride of place in Schumann's oeuvre, the Third is, for several reasons, special among the symphonies. The last of the four to be written*, it was the first for which Schumann conducted the premiere. Mendelssohn, who as a friend and the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig had done so much for Schumann's orchestral music, had died in 1847. Three years later, Schumann embarked on his own career as a conductor when he accepted the post in Düsseldorf. The new symphony written soon after taking up his new duties was one of the highlights of his first Düsseldorf season.

One of the most striking aspects of the "Rhenish" Symphony is that it has five movements instead of the usual four. It is also the only Schumann symphony in which extra-musical images and experiences played a role, though one would hesitate to call it a "program" symphony like other five-movement works such as Beethoven's "Pastoral" (No. 6) or Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. The "extra" fourth movement was inspired by a procession Schumann and Clara had seen near the Cologne cathedral, but in the end Schumann preferred not to make the connection explicit in the score in any way.

The first movement opens with a sweeping and joyful theme in 3/4 using a particular rhythmic pattern of which Schumann was especially fond. The beats in a pair of measures are rearranged from one-two-three one-two-three to one-two one-two one-two, resulting in larger 3/2 units that create a feeling of spaciousness and great momentum. The lyrical second theme, then, reverts to
"normal" 3/4 time. Out of these two contrasting materials—one passionate, the other more inward-looking—Schumann built a powerful and exciting opening movement.

The second movement is titled "Scherzo," but instead of the abrupt changes and humorous surprise effects one might expect, the music progresses at a leisurely pace and without major interruptions. Also, its form is not the simple A-B-A one usually finds in scherzos but rather A-B-C-A, with the second "A" section strongly modified (another departure from the norm).

Instead of "Andante" or "Adagio," the third movement bears the tempo marking Nicht schnell ("Not fast"). This gentle intermezzo served as the direct model of the second movement of the Brahms Third which borrowed several concrete details from it.

The "Cathedral" movement originally bore the tempo marking "In the manner of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony," which Schumann later changed to a simple Feierlich ("Solemnly"). If this movement was indeed inspired by the Cologne Cathedral, it had a predecessor in Schumann's 1840 song cycle, Dichterliebe ("The Poet's Love"), written to poems by Heinrich Heine. The sixth song in this cycle begins with the words:

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
da spiegelt sich in den Well'n
mit seinem grossen Dome
das grosse, heilige Cöln.

In the Rhine, the holy river,
great and holy Cologne
is reflected
with its great cathedral.

In this song, composed long before Schumann moved to the Rhineland, the composer uses the same deliberately archaic, contrapuntal style to depict the cathedral as he does in the symphony. But the symphony movement is to the song what a film would be to a photograph. The song presents the static images of the city, the cathedral in the city, and the Virgin's statue in the cathedral (which happens to resemble the poet's beloved). By contrast, the symphony movement is all motion. The contrapuntal material increases in volume and broadens in rhythm. The repeated wind fanfare at the end, with the sudden intrusion of a distant key, reinforces our perception that we have indeed been watching a solemn procession.

The main theme of the last movement bears an unusual combination of instructions: forte and dolce, i.e. loud and sweet. The music exudes a special mixture of joy and power throughout. Shortly before the end, the contrapuntal melody of the fourth movement reappears, but the tempo does not slow down to the pace of the earlier procession. On the contrary, it speeds up even more in the vigorous coda that brings the symphony to its conclusion.

* The Fourth Symphony, which received its final form in 1851, was actually a revision of a symphony written ten years earlier.