The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38, "Spring"

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Richard Freed

In the fall of 1839, about a year before her marriage to Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck noted in her diary that "it would be best if he composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano. . . . His compositions are all orchestral in feeling. . . . My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra—that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!"

And apparently she did. Schumann had composed two movements of a Symphony in G minor as early as 1832. He managed to orchestrate the first movement, which was performed in Zwickau on November 18 of that year, and a revised version was performed in Schneeberg three months later. Neither performance made much of an impression, though, and Schumann neither completed that early effort nor made another attempt at writing for orchestra until after he married Clara. Their wedding took place on September 12, 1840, and his creative efforts in the following year were devoted in large part to orchestral works.

It was Schumann's custom in those years to focus on a single area of composition at a time. In 1840 he concentrated on songs, and 1842 was taken up with chamber music; 1841 was a year for symphonies. In that year he produced his Overture, Scherzo and Finale (a sort of three-movement symphony which he originally called "Symphonette") and the first version of what was eventually to be labeled his Symphony No. 4, as well as the First Symphony, which he sketched in full in just four days, January 23-26. Less than a month later, on February 20, the orchestration was finished, and less than six weeks after that, on March 31, Mendelssohn conducted the work's premiere in Leipzig.

The symphony was undertaken in response to a ballad by Adolph Böttger, to whom Schumann dedicated the work, with "Spring Symphony" as its original title. (Schumann did not set any of Böttger's poems to music, but later in 1841 he called upon him for help in adapting Thomas Moore's text for use in his choral work Das Paradies und die Peri.)

In a letter to his friend Wolfgang Robert Griepenkerl, a respected writer on music, Schumann described this symphony as having been "born in a fiery hour." In another letter, to his fellow composer Louis Spohr, who was also active as a conductor, he elaborated: "I wrote the symphony in that rush of spring which carries a man away even in his old age, and comes over him anew every year. Description and painting were not a part of my intention, but I believe that the time in which it came into existence may have influenced its shape and made it what it is. You will not find it too easy, but neither will you find it too difficult."

Still later, on January 10, 1843, Schumann sent a letter to the conductor Wilhelm Taubert, in Berlin, with some technical advice on the proper performance of the work and a further explication of his impetus in composing it: "If only you could breathe into your orchestra, when it plays, that longing for spring! It was my main source of inspiration when I wrote the work in February 1841. I should like the very first trumpet call to sound as though proceeding from on high and like a summons to awaken. In the following section of the introduction, let me say, it might be possible to feel the world turning green; perhaps . . . a butterfly fluttering; and in the Allegro the gradual assemblage of everything that belongs to spring. However, it was only after I had completed the composition that these ideas came to my mind."

In addition to giving the Symphony its title, Schumann originally intended that each of the individual movements should also bear a descriptive heading. Although he discarded these headings before the score was published, they are worth recalling, for they indicate what the composer had in mind for the descriptive content and general mood of the respective movements. The first was to be headed "Spring's Awakening," and the opening trumpet call mentioned in the letter to Taubert was written to fit these lines from the ballad by Böttger that had that had provided the impetus for the work:

O wende, wende deinen Lauf—
Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!

O turn, O turn and change your course—
In the valley spring blooms forth!

The second movement, originally titled "Evening," is a mellow and typically Schumannesque reverie, not without devotional undertones. It leads without pause into the scherzo, whose rather gruff energy suggested the title "Merry Playfellows." Like several of Schumann's other scherzos, this one has two contrasting trio sections instead of a single one: the first has a somewhat mystical character, while the second, based on a folk tune, is in the nature of an especially vigorous Ländler.

Not another trumpet call, but the equivalent of a fanfare from the strings introduces the final movement, which Schumann called "Spring's Farewell." It is a jolly leave-taking, dancing almost all the way to its jubilant conclusion. Perhaps because the theme itself might seem to border on giddiness, Schumann felt he had to caution Taubert about the interpretation of this finale: "I want to tell you that I would like to describe a farewell to spring, and therefore do not want it to be taken too frivolously."