Horn-calls for wellbeing

Posted on: 29 April 2020, by :

The nine-minute first movement of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 97, is the choice for this, the second post in the ‘big tune‘ series. It has a persistently positive feel to it (as have movements 2-5 too) — some would say that’s exactly what we need when, in our social-distancing and lockdown, we work hard to protect our mental health and our wellbeing.

A performance in Lübeck (2010) by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.

For Schumann, too, this music appears to have been an uplifting experience during a creative time between his debilitating bouts of severe depression. The symphony was composed quickly in November-December 1850 when he was busy also with other compositions and with rehearsing and conducting concerts in Düsseldorf: he directed the first performance of the symphony on 6 February 1851. He had reluctantly accepted appointment as the city’s musical director (he would have preferred to remain in Dresden), and was making the best of it. It would not be long before public criticisms of his conducting and complaints from the municipal council about his management would emerge, but in the 1850-51 season, the honeymoon period of the job, this symphony represented significant success for him.

In modern times it became fashionable to attempt to link Schumann’s creative genius and its ups and downs to the pathology of his mental health (bipolar disorder has been suspected), as if his periods of productivity like 1850-51 were fuelled by hypermania. That view has been discredited for lack of substantiating evidence (a recent medical opinion is here). Although Schumann did become severely mentally ill (possibly from syphillis) and spent his final years, 1854-56, in a psychiatric hospital, there is no reason to believe that he was any more handicapped earlier in his life than many introspective people who live with depression. The pressures of his career that he did suffer from were not abnormal ones for the times, and some are directly relevant for appreciating this symphony. First, he was not naturally a composer for orchestra (he was far more at home with piano music and song-writing); he struggled with orchestration and in consequence some conductors struggle to interpret, with sufficient clarity, even fine music like this. Secondly, like all other composers of his generation, he was expected (and doubtless expected himself) to try to live up to the perceived symphonic achievements of Beethoven — the chasing of an impossible ideal that has been the basis of negative criticism ever since (Schumann the ‘failed symphonist’, etc.). Thirdly, after Berlioz raised the stakes still higher with his Symphonie fantastique (1830), there was a pressure to make each new symphony highly original with its own special meaning: a theme or a programme of ideas of some kind.

Symphony composition was therefore becoming the art of the mystery tour, where the music typically remains highly elusive in its meaning and significance, all the better to fire the listener’s imagination along the way. In return, to a large extent we each tend to hear in the music what we want to hear, guided and distracted by its multiple twists and turns — even in a single movement, like the first in this case. This too is variable: our individual senses provoked by the music are buffeted also by our own current mood and state of wellbeing. In this coalescence of intent between composer and listener, music works best by going unexplained. The nickname ‘Rhenish’ that was attached to this symphony — not by Schumann himself — led commentators to decide that the work communicates aspects of pleasant life in the Rhineland where Düsseldorf is situated, a very different environment than Schumann had been used to in Dresden. It’s not exactly a red herring, but ‘Rhenish’ may have circumscribed far too closely the creative thoughts that lie behind the work. The horn calls that characterize the big tune of the first movement, implicitly ‘heroic’ and virile in the manner known from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, might have stemmed more readily from Schumann’s sympathies with the recent revolutionary outbreaks of 1848 and 1849 in Berlin, Dresden, and also in Düsseldorf and other towns in the Rhine valley, than from his empathy with the landscape or the river itself, into which he would jump in his suicide attempt in 1854.