Composed: 1841, 1851
Length: 29 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 29, 1929, Bruno Walter conducting
Schumann's Symphony No. 4 (in D minor, Op. 120) grew out of happier circumstances. His wedding to pianist Clara Wieck, which only came to pass after years of struggle with her father, coincided with his first mature efforts as a symphonist. In fact, many commentators have referred to 1841, the year following Clara and Robert's marriage in September 1840, as the composer's "Symphony Year." Between January and March, he wrote the First Symphony; April and May saw the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale and the first movement of the A-minor Piano Concerto; and he started work on the present symphony immediately afterward. Before he started sketching the work, Schumann told Clara that his intention was to portray her in the work. It was completed, in its first version, in time for a December premiere in Leipzig, played by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under the direction of their concertmaster, Ferdinand David. The work was not a particular success - Clara's performance of a duo-piano version of the Franz Liszt-devised Hexaméron alongside Liszt himself had eclipsed her husband's symphony - and Schumann shelved it for a decade.
When he returned to the symphony, Schumann reworked it mainly in the details, simplifying the music in certain places, reworking the transitions into the second and fourth movements, and thickening the orchestration. Schumann scholar John Daverio has pointed out that Schumann "consciously sought to convey an air of solemn grandeur in his orchestral pieces in D minor, other examples being the Faust overture and the Violin Concerto."
In crafting the revision, a task that occupied seven days in December 1851, Schumann did nothing to compromise the visionary layout and taut musical structure of the work. The four movements are connected, not just cosmetically (they are played without a pause), but also thematically. Three motives bind the symphony together: the sinuous, flowing music that opens the work; the first theme of the ensuing Lebhaft section; and a fanfare-like figure, first played by the winds, punctuated by brass and timpani, about five minutes into the first movement. The music from the opening returns in the Romanze and the trio (center section) of the Scherzo; the Lebhaft's first theme is the basis of the driving outer sections of the Scherzo and returns during the transition to the finale (one of the most mesmerizing passages in all of Schumann); and the fanfare motive becomes the main theme of the finale.
Schumann's performances of the revised version of the symphony in Düsseldorf, where he was music director, including at the opening concert of the Lower Rhine Music Festival on May 15, 1853, were among the final musical triumphs of his life. Nine months later, the composer, who had been suffering from auditory disturbances and a host of other complaints indicative of mental illness, attempted suicide by plunging into the Rhine. Some fishermen pulled him out, and he spent the rest of his life in a sanatorium outside of Bonn.
John Mangum is Artistic Administrator for the New York Philharmonic.