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Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish". Analysis by Gerard Schwarz (part 1)

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 3" by Robert Schumann) - Robert Schumann's life wasn't easy. From an early age he had this depression, and he had occasional voices, and there were moments throughout his life, from his 20s on that he felt this way, and he often thought of committing suicide. It shows in his music too, especially the later music. Some of it, it's very inconsistent. Schumann was looking towards becoming music director for an orchestra. He received the invitation to be the music director in Dusseldorf. He had already composed two symphonies. He had done the first version of what became the Fourth Symphony and now he's working on the Third Symphony. The order of symphonies is always interesting. For example, Beethoven's five piano concertos, the first one was written second, and the second was written first, but they were published in the opposite way. The same thing with Schumann symphonies. His fourth symphony was written first, then the third, but then he revised the fourth, so the fourth was published after the third, and so forth. Schumann's Third Symphony is called the Rhenish, or the Rhine Symphony. The Rhine was important in Schumann's life on many levels, in fact, he tried to kill himself by throwing himself into the Rhine. The Rhenish Symphony was written during his time in Dusseldorf, and inspired by a trip to the Cologne Cathedral. At that time it wasn't finished but it was magnificent and that had a tremendous impact on them and this symphony, of course, was to a large extent inspired by a trip that Clara and Robert made in 1850 on the Rhine. The first movement has one of those long, extended, gorgeous Schumann melodies. It is so beautiful. The opposite of the Beethoven fifth motive, it goes on. ("Symphony No. 3" by Robert Schumann) It has a great deal of rhythmic ambiguity, which means even though it may be written in three, sometimes it sounds like it's played in groups of twos. And this ambiguity of rhythm made it actually more interesting, and eventually, of course, it would always fit into it. But Mozart did this, Beethoven did this, they all did, but Schumann did it in a remarkable way and this melody just soars so beautifully, and then it gets repeated. Towards the end of the melody, he has this little coda, which becomes important as we go later on into the movement. After that, he repeats the same material again and this time he has the horns soaring in the middle of the orchestra. The second theme is wistful, and light, and soft. It's first stated by the woodwinds, then the strings, then the woodwinds join in again. He goes back to the initial first theme. This is a typical sonata-allegro form. We've talked about it before. The exposition, first theme, the contrasting second theme, and then sometimes that whole section is repeated, in Schumann's case it isn't, and then he moves to the development section. And sometimes people call it a fantasy because the composer's are using their imagination and what Schumann does is he uses all the themes in constantly evolving ways. As glorious as the beginning is, and as heroic as it sounds, through his development section, it is at times very dark and somewhat uncertain. Then, of course, he inserts the initial material, and at one point he has this great section for the horns, where the orchestra makes a crescendo, and then it disappears, and the strings are playing fast tremolo pianissimo and the horns playing fortissimo play this melody, while everybody's in the background. Then the trumpets join in. And the horns join in. And then, boom, we're into the recapitulation. Not dissimilar from Beethoven, even though this is very quick sonata-allegro form, the coda is quite extended. And Schumann does a tremendous amount of contrast, especially dynamically, with a theme being played forte and then a quick response piano. And it ends in a very heroic nature. Again, with the horns and trumpets leading the orchestra.