Symphony no. 1 in B flat major (The Spring), op. 38

I. Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace
II. Larghetto
III. Scherzo. Molto vivace
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso

 

“They have said so many times, to the annoyance of composers, that after Beethoven we must now give up symphonic plans. This is partly true, because apart from a few relatively important orchestral works, which are only important because they help us judge the development of the composer but are of no importance to the public at large or the development of the genre, most were only a colourless reflection of Beethovenian creative practice” – wrote Schumann in 1839 in Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Indeed, in those days, many felt that after Beethoven's nine masterpieces, it was impossible to write something truly new and original in the symphonic genre. Schumann himself began composing a symphony in G minor between 1832 and 1833 (the so-called “Zwickau” Symphony) but perhaps it was no surprise that he only completed the first two movements.

 

The Schumann article quoted above was influenced by his visit to Vienna when he called on Schubert's older brother Ferdinand, who showed him the manuscript of his brother's C major Symphony. Schumann was knocked sideways by this work and immediately sent it to Mendelssohn in Leipzig, who on March 21st, gave this work, now generally known as the Great Symphony in C major its world premiere. This day also signified a turning point in the history of the genre in the 19th century. Schubert's masterpiece consciously does not follow the path marked out by Beethoven's Nineth Symphony; additionally the members of the romantic generation found in it an answer to their dilemma of how their own beloved small forms could be reconciled with the immense dimensions of the symphony and its public mood. It was almost certainly his acquaintance with the Schubert symphony that enabled Mendelssohn to finally complete his Third Symphony (“Scottish”) which he had begun in 1829. And it also enabled Schumann to write his own First Symphony in 1841.

 

Besides encouragement from the example of  Schubert, there were also biographical reasons why Schumann composed his Spring Symphony at this time. After many years of arguments with her father and even legal action, Schumann was finally able to marry Clara Wieck in September 1840. After such a difficult courtship, the lasting content that this happy end brought him unleashed almost unbelievable creative energy in Schumann who in 1840, composed 138 songs; the following year saw a host of symphonic works: besides the First Symphony he composed the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, the first movement of the later Piano Concerto in A minor, the subsequent Fourth Symphony and a sketch of another symphony in C minor.

 

It is characteristic of the youthful impetus of the Spring Symphony that Schumann needed only four days to sketch it and was ready with the full score version only a month later. The title is Schumann's own, was inspired by the final line of a poem by Adolf Böttger: “Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!” (Spring flowers in the valley!). And this work does truly resound with the joyous arrival of spring: it was even composed in the gloomy months of January and February. Schumann originally supplied each movement with a subtitle (Frühlingsbeginn – Abend – Frohe Gespielen – Voller Frühling), but we should not consider the Spring Symphony was programme music: “I didn't want to paint and draw”, he wrote in a letter.

 

The symphony is introduced by a motto played on trumpets and horns. This fanfare like theme is virtually a verbatim quotation from Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 2 (Lobgesang) which is also in B flat major, although it is obvious that both composers were deriving their inspiration from the opening motto idea of Schubert's “Great” C major symphony. The term motto is justified, because its musical material stands apart in this work; unlike the other themes, it does not participate in the symphonic development process, yet signifies a kind of sighting post throughout the work, creating a connection between the various themes and the movements of the symphony. When after the battles of the introduction, the landscape finally brightens and “spring blossoms”, the principal theme of the movement begins with an accelerated version of the motto, and the theme of the Larghetto also conceals it note for note. At the end of the slow movement, a chorus of trombones expounds a downward stepping musical idea – and this becomes the theme of the scherzo. The closing movement is the music of pure joy, virtually emulating the mood of Mendelssohn's lightness.