The Kennedy Center

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

About the Work

Robert Schumann Composer: Robert Schumann
© Peter Laki

In the young Schumann's mind, the idea of symphony-writing was closely connected to his desire to marry his fiancée, the extraordinary pianist Clara Wieck-two aspirations neither of which, it turned out, could be accomplished without a great deal of struggle.

Schumann had long had the ambition to become a symphonic composer. A movement from an unfinished symphony in G minor had been performed with considerable success by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in April 1833, yet the work was never completed. As far as Schumann's marriage plans were concerned, the late 1830s were spent mostly in court, fighting Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck (Schumann's former piano teacher), who was adamantly opposed to the union. Both battles were won in 1840-41. Robert and Clara were married on September 12, 1840. Less than six months later, not only was Schumann's first symphony completed, but several other orchestral works were well on their way: the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale in E major, the D-minor Symphony (later to be known as No. 4), and the Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra-the first movement of what would become Schumann's Piano Concerto.

Schumann knew well that he needed to write a symphony in order to realize his potential of becoming one of the greatest composers of his time; but it was Clara who consistently drove the point home to him. (At the time of their marriage, Schumann's published output consisted solely of piano works and songs.) So it is not surprising to read in one of Schumann's letters to his fiancée, written after hearing Schubert's Great C-major Symphony: "I was quite happy, and wished for nothing but that you might be my wife and I could also write such symphonies." Upon completing the First Symphony in February 1841, the composer compared himself to "a young woman who has just given birth-so relieved and happy but also sick and sore." One should remember that as he was writing this, Clara was already pregnant with their first child. (Seven more were to follow over the next 13 years.)

Although Schumann did not explicitly call this work the "Spring" Symphony, he did make it known that he had been inspired by the idea of spring. He even intended to give each movement a descriptive title ("Beginning of Spring"--"Evening"--"Merry Playmates"--"Spring at its Height") but later decided to discard these titles. Apparently, it all started with a line of poetry that Schumann couldn't get out of his head: "Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf" ("In the valley spring is blossoming"). The author of the poem that ends with this line, Adolf Böttger, is forgotten today but enjoyed a certain fame in his lifetime. He was a personal friend of Schumann's and helped him with the libretto of the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1843). In a 1952 essay on Schumann's orchestral music, Mosco Carner noted that the poem in question, which begins with the words "Du Geist der Wolke, trüb und schwer" ("O spirit of the clouds, dark and heavy") is filled with a "dark depressive feeling of which there is not the slightest hint in the music." Carner found a much more positive celebration of spring in another Böttger poem and suggested that "this second poem was Schumann's real incentive and the last line of the first poem provided him with only a motto whose verbal image and iambic metre struck his fancy."

That meter is faithfully reflected in the symphony's opening fanfare, which could easily be sung to the words "Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf." The verbal image of spring unfolding like a blossom seems to infuse the entire work. In the first movement, we see this short initial idea grow organically into a large-scale symphonic construction. In the second-movement Larghetto, Schumann spins out a single long line, instead of repeating and modifying short melodic segments. To borrow a title invented by Schumann's friend Mendelssohn, this movement is a true ?song without words" (there are actual quotes from Schumann's song Mainacht ["May Night"]. The movement does not have a clear-cut ending: its last phrase, left open harmonically, leads directly into the scherzo. (Blurring the movement boundaries was something that both Schumann and Mendelssohn experimented with in several of their symphonies.)

The scherzo begins rather tempestuously in the minor mode, which comes as something as a jolt after the more lyrical music that has come before. The energetic theme, whose opening recalls the minuet of Mozart's Symphony in G minor, K. 550, later mellows to a gentle dance tune. There are two trios, the first of which alludes to the fanfare theme of the first movement. After a return of the scherzo proper, we hear the second trio, a quick dance "on tiptoes," as it were. The final return of the scherzo ends with a dreamy coda that, after several surprising tempo changes, ends with a recall of the first trio in a delicate pianissimo.

The finale, at once playful and jubilant, has two principal themes, related by their common underlying rhythm. The second of these themes quotes the last movement of Schumann's piano cycle Kreisleriana (1838). For a fleeting moment, darker clouds gather on the horizon, but a poetic horn call and a delicate flute cadenza clear the air and the cheerful recapitulation is soon under way.