Robert Schumann
Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Germany
Died July 29, 1856, in Bonn, Germany
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
Performance time
38 minutes
November 5, 1846
Last Performed by the TSO
March 8, 2015

Schumann does not mess around at the beginning of his First Symphony, announcing with trumpets and horns the two bar motive that is the heart and subject of the work, the arrival of Spring. The rhythm and the notes of the motive are important both together and separately. It will become very familiar as the Symphony moves along; some critics have thought the composer became a little too fond of it. It is based on the last line of a poem by a long-forgotten poet: “In the valley spring begins to bloom” (Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf.)

Although composers often have a narrative or drama in mind when composing their symphonies, they almost always prefer to tell their story in music alone. And although Schumann made it clear that his first symphony is about the arrival of spring, he detached any words indicating that before the first performance. Nevertheless, he wrote several times about the subject the symphony, and at one point gave each of the four movements of the symphony a title. They were: 1. Spring’s Awakening. 2. Evening. 3. Merry Playmates. 4. Spring’s Farewell.

The symphony had a mostly successful first performance under the direction of his friend, Felix Mendelssohn. Somewhat a latecomer to composition—Schumann concentrated on developing pianistic virtuosity until a hand injury in his early twenties—he lacked the advanced theoretical training necessary for large scale composition. He revised the symphony several times before he allowed publication of it almost ten years after the first performance. Nevertheless, conductors and music historians have still found fault with Schumann’s symphonies, particularly in his orchestration, even to the point of rewriting various instrumental parts. Gustav Mahler created his own conducting scores of the Schumann symphonies, correcting what he considered to be errors. Debates about whether Schumann wrote what he wanted or was incapable of writing what he wanted to continue into the present day.

David Gilbert