Saturday, May 2, 2015

Schumann's Symphonies

Schumann in 1850
A recent Gramophone magazine (March 2015) has a nice piece by Philip Clark “Building a Fantasy World," about Schumann’s four symphonies. When I’m on a road trip, I like to play all four straight through, an enjoyable landscape of its own that add a needed dynamic to the flat Midwestern countryside.

Clark writes: “The first movement of his Symphony No. 1 reaches an apparent cathartic end-point as a solo flute line marked dolce reconciles grinding harmonic and structural inner tensions... But the brass, percussion and trilling woodwinds unleash a stampeding burlesque march. Baleful chromatic inclines smudge the harmony, like Offenbach or Sousa turned on their dark side...” But the interesting aspects of the four don’t stop there. “The free jazz of the Second Symphony’s sostenuto assai prologue... in the Third Symphony, that extra movement that sneaks in before the finale, a cobwebby and gothic reimagining of the grounding contrapuntal principles of Renaissance music and Bach; and the audacious cyclic structure of the Fourth Symphony, each movement played attacca and dovetailing into the next.” He notes that the Fourth seems an excellent “distillation” of the other three, and yet the first version of the Fourth is actually contemporaneous with the First, showing how “improbable” are the paths of “Schumann’s symphonic journey” (pp. 16-17).

I’m almost never on the cutting edge of culture, so I’m happy to realize that I discovered Schumann’s symphonies before they became so popular for orchestras to record---with Simon Rattle, John Eliot Gardiner, and other conductors recording cycles during the past several years. Swiss conductor Heinz Holliger suggests that Schumann’s symphonies need considerable rehearsal for them to sound as colorful and dynamic as they are (p. 18, 19). So a conductor has to be committed to the works.

Mary Oliver’s poem “Robert Schumann” came to mind (page 111 in her 1992 “New and Selected Poems”). “[T]he mind clings to the road it knows,” she writes. For reasons I can’t quite remember, I associate the symphonies with U.S. 89 in Arizona. Twenty-five years ago we lived in Flagstaff. Perhaps I first heard Schumann’s first symphony on the classical station en route to Prescott, but I soon purchased a cassette with the first and four symphonies, and then the other two. The uplifting music of the unhappy composer clings to the road of a familiar, former home, and travels on more recent byways.

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