Schumann and Brahms: German Romantic Masters
Robert Schumann 1810-1856
Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

No other composer symbolized the romantic movement in music as did Robert Schumann. Talented both in music and literature, he used the latter to promote his romantic ideals about the future of music. He was a true elitist, pitting “us,” the enlightened (the Davidsbündler), against “them,” the masses, whom he called “Philistines”. The latter appellation has remained part of the international elitist vocabulary to this day.

Schumann’s five-year pursuit of his beloved, the brilliant Clara Wieck, had all the ingredients of a soap opera (or grand opera): A hostile father-in-law, an adoring young bride-to-be, secret correspondence, lawsuits and court battles, accusations of alcoholism, banishment from Wieck's house, economic pressure, etc. Clara was an outstanding pianist and composer in her own right, and their eventual triumph led to a stormy but happy marriage unleashing a flood of creativity in both husband and wife – including seven children.

Although listed as Robert Schumann’s fourth symphony, the Symphony in D minor was actually his second, composed in 1841 during the happy first year of his marriage to Clara Wieck. In his diary the composer wrote “…my next symphony will be called Clara and I will portray her with flutes, oboes and harps.”

The Symphony broke with the prevailing symphonic traditions, being more of an orchestral fantasy on several related themes which undergo transformations and variations. In this way it forms a bridge between the classical symphony and the later tone poems of Liszt. Schumann himself referred to it as “Symphonistische Phantasie.”

The result of these innovations was a chilly reception at the premiere in Leipzig. Schumann withdrew the work and only returned to it in 1851, after the success of his Third Symphony. He revised and reorchestrated it, fusing all four movement to be played without a break, which made it even closer to a “Phantasie.” However, many conductors ignore this directive and separate the movements.

The opening movement of the Symphony can actually be thought of in two separate sections, each one dominated by a thematic group. The first, in D minor includes the theme of the slow introduction, marked Ziemlich langsam (quite slowly), Example 1 and three motives from the allegro. Example 2 The second thematic group, appearing well into the development, begins with three sharp chords in the orchestra, similar to a hammer blow, Example 3 in addition to a lyrical, romantic theme. Example 4 In this movement Schumann develops all the themes in various combinations. He revisits this complex of musical ideas in the finale movement as an sophisticated unifying device for the Symphony.

The second movement, Romanza, again marked Ziemlich langsam, introduces a melancholy theme on the oboes and cellos, alternating with the opening theme of the introduction. Example 5 A classic ABA structure, the movement introduces contrasting new material in its middle section. Example 6

The lively Scherzo pits a certain heavy-handedness Example 7 against a gentle Trio that uses the same music as the B section of the preceding Romanza. Example 8 The movement ends on a poetic and gentle note that merges imperceptibly with the slow introduction of the Finale.

The last movement is essentially a redefinition of the first movement, with some new music. At first, the slow introduction uses the first allegro theme, now in a completely different guise and making the listener believe that there will be a return to the first movement D minor section. Example 9 When the allegro of this final movement begins, it takes up the more joyous second section of the first movement to develop, this time with more confidence. Example 10 A new theme is critical to contributing a celebratory air to this movement that the first movement lacked. Example 11 It is as if here Schumann has reconsidered the tension and drama of the opening movement and converted it into a triumph.

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

This concerto was Johannes Brahms's first orchestral work to survive his self-criticism and weeding – he literally consigned to the flames anything that he considered less than perfect. It had a strange and checkered birth, starting life in 1854 as a two-piano sketch for a symphony. The orchestration, however, caused trouble for the inexperienced composer and he dropped the project. He transformed parts of it instead into a piano concerto, using the first movement of the discarded symphony for the first movement of the Concerto and composing a new slow second movement and a rondo as its third movement. He did not waste the scherzo movement of the symphony: its theme found new life in the second movement, the funeral march, of the German Requiem.

It took a further couple of years of agonizing, including continuous correspondence about orchestration with his friend, violinist Joseph Joachim, before Brahms was satisfied enough to release the work for its premiere in Hanover with Joachim’s orchestra in January 1859. The Concerto was a modest success, but a performance in Leipzig, five days later elicited nothing but catcalls. “The work cannot give pleasure…it has nothing to offer but hopeless desolation and aridity…Herr Brahms has deliberately made the piano part as uninteresting as possible…” stated one of the critics.

In this Concerto of massive proportions – it is nearly 50 minutes long – the piano and orchestra are true equals. Although Brahms wanted certain piano passages to stand out prominently, by and large the orchestra has equal billing and often predominates in the presentation of ideas. Critics used to refer to it as a "symphony with piano accompaniment."

According to Joachim, the stormy opening with its foreboding sense of doom reflected Brahms’s emotional response to the news of his friend Robert Schumann’s attempted suicide and commitment to an asylum. The theme builds up considerable tension by withholding the affirmation of the tonic d minor for a full minute – and then not for very long – before veering off again. Example 1 Among its other features, the trill figures prominently and will return as a motivic element in the final movement.

The first movement is especially rich in thematic material: three additional important thematic groups, two in the orchestra, Example 3 & Example 2 and the last as the opening theme for the piano.Example 4 After paying tribute to the material from the orchestral exposition, it introduces a gentle secondary theme of its own to parallel the original orchestra theme that immediately follows. Example 5 It is important, however, to note that each theme is made up of a single motivic element; Brahms combines and reorders these elements, thereby redefining their significance within the fabric of the movement as a whole. Yet, all the themes in the movement are to some degree tonally ambiguous, and Brahms uses their flexibility to prolong and develop the tension. It may well have been the tenuous hold on the tonality that proved so unsettling to the critics. The lack of virtuosic cadenza anywhere in the work may have soured them as well.

The rhapsodic Adagio in D major provides some respite, clearly recalling the slow movements of Brahms’s idol, Beethoven, whose Ninth Symphony Brahms had recently heard. Brahms inscribed over this movement the words from the Catholic Mass "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini" (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) – a revealing and more salubrious substitute for his original Adagio, whose text when it appears in the German Requiem is: "Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras" (For all flesh is as grass).

The orchestra opens with a theme that spins out for over a minute, its various internal motives providing some the material for the free-form movement. Example 6 The piano enters with its own theme, while still maintaining the mood set by the orchestra. Example 7 The soaring piano line in its dialogue with the orchestra is like something taken from a slow bel canto aria. Played on a modern piano, it is a challenge to make the extended pianissimo writing sing, as in this unusual slow cadenza. Example 8 The trills and the cadence on the timpani are a gentle reminder of the beginning of the Concerto and a harbinger of the coming storm.

The rondo Finale returns to the Sturm und Drang of the first movement, using the trill as a common element between the principal themes of both movements. Example 9 This theme is balanced by a cantabile theme in the piano, reminiscent of Schumann. Example 10 The movement also contains a little fugue – for a more conservative touch –   and a Beethovenesque coda, ending with series of horn calls Example 11 (an echo of Fidelio?) Along with the trill, the horn calls hark back to a matching horn solo in the first movement, where it frames one of the piano's excursions. Example 12
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2014