Symphony No.3

Robert Schumann

Symphony No.3 in Eb major

Op. 97 • “Rhenish”

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

It has often been charged that Robert Schumann's orchestral works are little more than thinly-veiled transcriptions of musical thoughts that fall more naturally on the keyboard, and that he lacked the necessary skill to realize his purely orchestral ideas effectively. Largely due to musicians' popular acceptance of these criticisms, Schumann's four mature symphonies have suffered long periods of neglect. We can freely admit Schumann's inexperience as an orchestrator, and some pianistic traits and mannerisms are bound to sneak across in the works of such an accomplished composer for the keyboard (very few composers are immune to such "seeping" effects); however, this in no way diminishes the powerful impact that his wonderfully evocative, prototypically "Romantic" (in the original, mid-nineteenth century sense of the word) symphonic compositions can have in skilled hands. A highly individual sense of formal design, strikingly beautiful thematic and harmonic substance, and a powerful influence on such later symphonists as Brahms and Tchaikovsky all recommend these musical gems to both audiences and musicians alike, who would do well to re-evaluate them on their own terms, and not compare them to the works of later composers who clearly had different means and different goals.

Schumann's "Rhenish" Symphony, the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, is so called because it was written in the fall of 1850 during the composer's tenure as conductor at Düsseldorf on the famous Rhine river. In a letter to the publisher N. Simrock in 1851 Schumann claimed that the history and spirit of that noble river and its people were running through his mind as he composed the work. The Symphony was less successful at its premiere in February 1851 (under the composer's direction) than had his two previous symphonic premieres had been. Although third in number, the "Rhenish" is actually Schumann's final entry in the genre, the forthcoming Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, having been originally composed in 1841.

The heroic main theme of the opening Lebhaft is laced with hemiolas that transform its basic 3/4 time into larger bars of 3/2. A second theme in G minor is offered by the oboe and clarinet before being taken over by the violins. The astute listener will have noticed a keen similarity between the rhythmic outline of Schumann's main theme and that of the main theme to the opening movement of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major. This similarity is enhanced even further during the transition to the second theme in the recapitulation, when the figure is played out with precisely the same intervallic content as the later Brahms melody -- just one example of the deep and abiding influence Schumann's music had on his younger associate. Schumann incorporates the jovial Rheinweinlied (Rhine-wine Song) into the Scherzo, which, as in the Second Symphony, appears as the second rather than the more traditional third movement. The solid C major foundation is shaken up briefly by the A minor Trio (although, rather stubbornly, the bass continues to putter around on low C). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the "Rhenish" Symphony is the interpolation of an extra movement. Marked Feierlich (Solemn), the movement originally carried the inscription, "in the manner of an accompaniment to a solemn ceremony." The Finale is a robust outburst (marked, like the first movement, Lebhaft) which recalls some of the main theme from the fourth movement before plunging into a final burst of joyful E flat.