Symphony No. 1 “Spring”, op. 38
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, strings
I Andante un poco maestoso - Allegro molto vivace
IV. Allegro animato e grazioso
Composed 1841. First performance: 31 March 1841, Leipzig. Leipzig Gewandhausorchester. Felix Mendelssohn, conductor.
Notes by Katherine Baber
Schumann crafted his First Symphony over the course of 1841, his “orchestral year”, as opposed to the 1840 “year of song,” in which he also won the hand of his wife, Clara. Inspired by the poetry of fellow Leipziger Adolf Böttger, he twice revised the “Spring” Symphony after readings by the Gewandhaus Orchestra, eventually deciding to omit any reference to the poetry. Nonetheless, the character of Böttger’s Frühlings-und Liebesmelodien (Melodies of Spring and Love) suffuses each movement of the symphony. The bold rhythmic statement by the trumpets and trombones that opens the first movement of the symphony echoes the call in the poetry: “O turn, o change your course—In the valley spring begins to bloom.” At first somber, this motto is gradually transformed in the course of the Andante introduction, becoming the energetic primary theme of the Allegro, stated boldly in the horns, before going on to unify the following three movements. Schumann had called the first movement “Spring’s Awakening”, and besides the growth of the motto, solo woodwinds unfurl melodies that curl like vines through the orchestral. Much like the coming of spring, this movement is sometimes gentle, sometimes moody, and ultimately irrepressible.
The Larghetto and Scherzo are meant to be performed without pause, which, like the recurring presence of the motto theme, helps to unify the work. Schumann conjured “Evening” in his slow movement with a thickly layered texture that is, for the most park, remarkably quiet. A brief passage of dotted rhythms in the woodwinds gathers energy and alludes to the motto from the first movement before dissipating into the nocturnal atmosphere. Most of the interest here is in the subtle coloration, like twilight, that Schumann achieves by slowly shifting from one combination of instruments to another. The mood is tender and yields sweetly to the “Merry Playmates” of the Scherzo. Just as if they are two characters at play, the alternating scherzo and trio sections occupy the same space—a triple time dance—but have distinct personalities—the one bold and the other simpler and more rustic. It is in the trio sections that we hear another allusion to the motto theme, which pushes against the flow of the dance with its more square duple rhythm—a moment of stubbornness in the playful game.
The finale, “Spring’s Farewell,” perhaps recalls a verse from another of Böttger’s poems:
Take what May whispered to me
About love and heart’s harmony—
And when my soul darkens,
May your brighter one transfigure it!
This is a hopeful parting, something that Schumann’s earlier works would not have led us to expect, but which seems entirely appropriate to his newly-wedded state. Still, any spring has its storms, as does the central development section of this movement, with its shuddering tremolos and darker chromatic passages. This is one of many such orchestral storms, and likely models include Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the “Pastoral”) and Berlioz’s Symphony fantastique. In its wake, the horns call out in the sudden calm, before the solo flute and then the rest of the woodwinds appear to lead us away in a bright whirl that sweeps away the last of the dark. The opening motto theme also appears throughout the finale before assuming its final form—an energetic, syncopated coda that propels the symphony to a joyous end. Ultimately, we do not need to know the titles Schumann had once given these movements, as their character is expressed clearly enough in sound. The poetry played its role in inspiring Schumann to create an organic musical whole, a symphony that breathes and pulses with its own life.