“I hear that D minor sound wildly from afar”

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Unconditionally red. © Charles Thibo

Pulsation. Dynamics. Passion. Beauty. Sublimity. Eternity. On 29 May 1841, Robert Schumann noted he had the “hint of a thought for a symphony”. A day later, his wife Clara Wieck made an entry into the Schumann’s common diary: “Yesterday [Robert] has started to write another symphony, that should comprise only one movement, but also an adagio and a fugue. I haven’t heard anything yet, but I observe Robert being busy, and at times I hear that D minor sound wildly from afar and I know that this works comes from the depth of his soul.” What an admirable description!

Robert was inspired and fully motivated; he finished his Symphony No. 4 in D Minor within five months over the summer of 1841. And when he was done, he was satisfied and on 27 October he presented the work to the public. The audience’s reaction was lukewarm. The genius of the composition was palpable, but the symphony remained to abstract for many, too complex, too modern, to everything. His editor Breitkopf & Härtel looked for an excuse to explain why he wouldn’t publish Schumann’s most recent composition. Schumann’s first symphony had not yet gained track with the audience, and an early publication would harm both works blablabla…

Schumann let the matter rest for a decade. In 1851 he took the score out of a drawer and set to work again. A second version saw the light, and in 1853, he ventured a second premiere. The audience was enthusiastic, and after negotiating for a month, the editor gave in. The late success of the symphony had nothing to do with Schumann’s amendments. Between 1841 and 1853 the audience’s taste had changed and its perception of Schumann had changed too. Schumann now led the orchestra of Düsseldorf and his fame as a composer had grown. Schumann’s conception of the symphony seemed no longer revolutionary.

Jon W. Finson sees the symphony in its early version as an experimental work. The choice of a minor key, the development of the material from two core melodies, the lining of the four movements so that they constitute one uninterrupted flow – all this was new. Schumann had created a precedent for an organic composition that now ranks among the finest Romantic instrumental works. Finson explains that the fourth symphony was “…seen as a whole, a courageous and unparalleled project. Thematic cycles and variations in Beethoven’s symphonies had already anticipated the possibilities of the genre, with one idea following the next and all of those ideas being connected by an inner spiritual link.”

Have a look at the picture illustrating this post. The intensity of the red, the smoothness of the petals, the abundance of round forms… Now imagine the smell… I could find no better symbol for this symphony. I recommend the recording by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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