Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810, and died in an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, on July 29, 1856. Schumann composed his Symphony in D minor originally in late 1841, not long after completing his First Symphony (the D minor thus being second in order of composition), but following its premiere on December 6, 1841, in Leipzig, he chose to withhold it from publication and further performance. Not until 1851 did he return to the work, revise it considerably in orchestration and some structural details, and publish it as his Symphony No. 4. The first performance of this final version took place under the composer’s own direction on December 30, 1852, in Düsseldorf.
The score of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The symphony is about 32 minutes long.
In his life and in his art, Robert Schumann was a divided man, to a degree that makes it astonishing that he accomplished what he did, not only as one of the defining Romantic composers but as one of the important figures in shaping that period. In his youth, Schumann’s passions were divided between music and poetry. Afflicted from early on with psychotic episodes alternating with a fragile stability, he was torn between sanity and madness. In his early maturity he went from a dissipated studenthood to a long marriage that was not only a powerful love match but a union that broadened his art and ultimately saved his life—for as long as it could be saved.
Schumann went through periods of manic creativity alternating with fallow stretches. Creatively he began with some of the most innovative and imaginative first opus numbers in our music, creating poetic and impetuous piano works that are still fundamental to the Romantic repertoire. Yet in his full maturity, he took up a neoclassical conservatism that pitted him against many of his contemporaries, and which led to a collection of large works in which his Romantic voice sometimes contends with the traditional forms it is forced into. When he became a music critic—one of the most influential of his era—Schumann as a literary conceit divided himself into two personas: Eusebius, the thoughtful, conservative introvert, and Florestan, the extroverted enthusiast in search of the newest thing. Both of them were elements of Schumann’s own character.
In his youth, Schumann was at his finest and most characteristic as a miniaturist. The reason he became more of a traditionalist had much to do with the love of his life, Clara, born Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher. Schumann fell helplessly in love with her when she was a teenager and already one of the leading pianists of her time, trained entirely by her domineering father. After years of bitter struggle with her father, at 18 Clara broke with him. She and Robert were married in 1840.
They formed the greatest musical team of the century, Clara not only championing but often inspiring Robert’s music, meanwhile with steely resolve holding him together in his bad times. By 1853 he was hearing angelic and demonic choruses in his head and growing fearful that he might hurt Clara. In February 1854 Schumann threw himself into the Rhine in a suicide attempt. He was committed to an asylum from which he never emerged and died there in 1856.
It was Clara who pressed Robert to write larger works: he turned to symphonies, extended chamber pieces, an opera, an oratorio. None of these was entirely congenial; the old formal outlines were not engrained in him the way they were for his hero Beethoven and Schumann’s young discovery and protégé Brahms (whose allegiance to traditional forms owed something to Schumann). At the same time, Schumann was not a natural with the orchestra, as were, for example, his bêtes noires Wagner and Berlioz.
In his manic periods of creativity Schumann sometimes concentrated on one medium, such as in his “song year” of 1840. What we know as his Symphony No. 4 first appeared on the heels of his First Symphony (drafted in four days) in 1841, during which he also produced what would ultimately become the first movement of his Piano Concerto. The Fourth, drafted in the course of a week, is the passionate counterpart to the more tranquil First, his so-called Spring Symphony—which is to say that in spirit the First is closer to Schumann’s alter ego Eusebius, the Fourth closer to Florestan—extroverted, surging, obsessive. If the First is more conventional in form, the Fourth is exploratory, the movements flowing into each other and themes recurring throughout the piece. The latter device came to be called a “cyclic symphony.” Schumann did not invent the idea (there are cues in Beethoven and in the idée fixe of his friend Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique), but he explored it in a systematic and unprecedented way. Concerned, however, by the response to the Leipzig premiere played by the Gewandhaus Orchestra in December 1841, he put the new symphony in the drawer for what proved to be ten years before he did some significant revising and tightening. That version, finished after the symphonies published as 1, 2, and 3, and therefore published as the Fourth, is the one generally performed, as is the case here.
The symphony is scored for a large orchestra including four horns and trombones. It begins with a brooding D minor introduction featuring a flowing theme that has two significant, ultimately interrelated aspects. First, the descending pattern first heard as F–E–D–C-sharp–D is going to be the leading motif of the symphony. Second, that pattern is Schumann’s “Clara theme.” He was given to symbolizing in notes people and places in his life; his Clara theme is derived from the notes of her name: C–(B)–A–(G-sharp)–A. In the Fourth the theme is transposed but still unmistakable. The theme of the driving 2/4 that follows the introduction is an upward arpeggio and a chain of “Clara” figures. It proceeds as a nominal sonata-form exposition, with a second theme section in F major, but in practice the main theme never departs but evolves constantly. At the coda, again tellingly, the Clara theme becomes part of a triumphant D major.
The “Romanze” slow second movement captures its tone of songful reverie. The Clara motif is not exactly quoted in the opening theme, an oboe-and-cello duet, but its four notes E–D–C–D retain its shape. The second section returns to the texture of the first-movement introduction, the Clara theme now in its primal notes: C–B–A–G-sharp–A. The third movement is a surging and demonic D minor scherzo, its opening notes an inversion of the Clara theme. Its form is in a relatively conventional layout, with a contrasting B-flat major Trio in the middle.
The finale begins with an introduction by way of a slowed recollection of the first movement. That will be the main theme of the fast music that follows, along with the dotted-rhythm figure from the opening movement. Now the music is in D major, making the finale in part a jubilant recomposition of the restless first movement. There is a real sonata-form second theme, buoyant and soaring, and after a much-evolved recapitulation, the symphony ends with a deliriously joyful coda.
It is hard not to see the Fourth Symphony as a portrait of the Schumanns’ relationship, from protracted struggle to triumph and joy. Meanwhile, for all the caveats long registered against Schumann as a symphonist—his lack of confidence with the orchestra, his shaky sense of form—he still had a singular and vibrant voice. He wrote some of the most important symphonies in the period before the genre entered a long senescence that was finally ended by his one-time protégé Brahms. Great artists are not always the most perfect exemplars; rather they have the capacity to make their flaws irrelevant. Schumann is a prime case in point.
Jan Swafford is a prizewinning composer and writer whose most recent book, published in December 2020, is Mozart: The Reign of Love. His other acclaimed books include Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Johannes Brahms: A Biography, The Vintage Guide to Classical Music, and Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.
The first American performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in its final, 1851 version took place on March 30, 1856, at New York’s Assembly Rooms, in a “Sacred Concert” led by Carl Bergmann. Boston first heard Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (also in its 1851 version) the following year, when Carl Zerrahn led the Philharmonic Society in a performance at the Melodeon on February 7, 1857.
The first Boston Symphony performance of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was in its 1851 version, led by Georg Henschel in November 1882.