The Philharmonie de Luxembourg has a curious sense of timing. Performing Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, commonly called “Spring Symphony”, in October! On a day marked by drizzle, fog and a single, uniform shade of grey? Or was it meant as an encouragement? Hang tight, spring is just months away? Be that as it may, I did enjoy the concert, oh yes!
I have only started to explore the works of Schumann – I am to busy with all those Russians – but I have been listening to a recording by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Sir George Solti over and over again and each time I like it better! However, as you would expect, attending yesterday’s live performance by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Luxembourg under Gustavo Gimeno was by far the best way to dive into that sea of melodies. It was extraordinary! Bam, there you have it. The incoming conductor seems to have given the orchestra a new vitality, which in turn gave Schumann’s first symphony additional impetus.
Songs and symphonies
Schumann’s compositions follow the romantic tradition, but he was in no hurry to write large orchestral works. Born in 1810, he focused on pieces for piano until 1840. That year, he mainly wrote song cycles. In 1841 then he felt motivated to write his first symphony. He must have had quite an inspiration. The first sketch was ready within days and the orchestration completed within two months. It was first performed in Leipzig in March 1841, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn.
Three more symphonies followed; earlier, in 1832, he had started to work on a symphony in G minor called “Zwickau”, but he never finished it. Schumann composed more piano works, many, many Lieder, just like Franz Schubert, choral and dramatic works and chamber music. Alas, he suffered from a mental illness and in 1854, he tried to commit suicide. He was rescued, but subsequently taken to an asylum where he died in 1856.
A tribute to life
Symphony No. 1 Op. 38 has four movements and the last movement takes up a theme that Schumann has previously written for his piano cycle “Kreisleriana”, considered to be his masterpiece, if there is any. Schumann initially had foreseen four titles for the different movements: Beginning of Spring, Evening, Joyful Games, Full Spring. He dropped them later on, just like he dropped the title “Spring Symphony”. Which was reasonable. What use are titles when the composer must bear in mind that a piece, when performed, is interpreted twice: First by the performing artist, secondly by the audience. And the audience is free to see and hear in a piece anything it likes!
I like the piece for its freshness and liveliness, terms naturally associated with spring. The general tone is one of ebullient optimism and triumph. The winds’ opening is quite ceremonial: Up goes the curtain and the Fairy of Spring enters the stage. It makes a few bold steps, the flutes introduce a sweet melody while the strings move into the background for a short time. But soon they take over again and I imagine the fairy performing a dance of joy – allegro molto vivace – first on her own, than joined by other fairies.
The first movement is a wonderful tribute to the force of nature, its power to create life and beauty. The second movement initially confers a feeling of regret and longing, a central concept of the Romantic era. Then the pizzicato* evokes that silver lining on the horizon, hope of something new being born returns. The third movement starts with much energy: the Fairy of Spring and her little helpers dance a ballet in a lush garden full of flowers. Finally, movement number four exudes the same level of energy as the first movement and it also reflects the joy and the vitality, but in a more subtle way. 905 words and counting… I am setting a new record here!
Love was in the air
When I started to write this, I did not know that Schumann – while writing this symphony – was inspired by his “love spring” as he called it. I found out while researching details about the work. A year before Schumann started to compose it, he had married the pianist and composer Clara Wieck, 13 years younger than himself. Love – that may have helped to shape the dynamics of the symphony! I feel a lot of the energy of a newly wed couple, full of hope, saturated with plans for the future. The substance however had another source, at least according to Schumann’s wife: a poem of twelve lines by Adolf Böttger called “Spring Poem”. The staff of the Philharmonie was kind enough to reprint it in the concert booklet. However, it remains a mystery to me how this rather confusing poem could have anything to do with the symphony I heard!
Coda fraught with emotions
Finally, to make you a little jealous, I will tell you that I heard Isabelle Faust yesterday evening. Schumann was after the pause. The evening started with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Ugh! One of my favourite violin concertos played by one of my favourite violinists. Emotionally challenging. 42 minutes of misty eyes. Temporarily speechless, stunned by the beauty of that specific live performance, enchanted by the elegance of Isabelle Faust’s play. It will take a few days to cast the emotions into words. So, hang tight. Beethoven is on his way. And so is spring.
© Charles Thibo