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Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841, 1851)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft

II. Romanze: Ziemlich langsam

III. Scherzo: Lebhaft

IV. Langsam – Lebhaft


First composed in 1841, Robert Schumann's revised the final Fourth Symphony in 1851, beefing the orchestration into its current published version. In 1840, King Kamehameha III and the Kuhina Nui (Regent) Kekāuluohi ruled the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. On October 8, 1840, they enacted the first complete constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom and established the governing legislative body, the House of Representatives, and the office of Kuhina Nui. Through the 40s, growth in foreign interest intensified, as did fears of a foreign takeover. President John Tyler's Doctrine of 1842 supported Hawaiʻi's independence while fortifying its influence through foreign policy. The following year, Hawaiʻi fell under five months of British rule in the Paulet affair. 


On March 7, 1848, the King redistributed Hawaiian lands into thirds for the monarch, chiefs, and common people. Unfortunately, the Great Māhele (Division) intended to give Hawaiians property ownership backfired, paving the way for the overthrow 45 years later. The concept of land ownership, both in the process, financial requirements, and the justification for claiming land already habituated, was confusing. As a result, many filed no claims, and the two-year mandate to fill them through the Kuleana Act of 1850 further separated the people from the land. 



Robert Schumann struggled with inner demons. Losing his father and sister at 16, then his brother and sister-in-law at 22, led to a severe nervous breakdown and depression in 1833. His alcoholic predilections (picked up during his law years) aggravated his cyclical episodes of manic energy and deep depression. Abandoning a law career, Schumann dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. He sought out the celebrated teacher (and future father-in-law), Friedrich Wieck, but those dreams ended. Ambition led him to design a finger contraception that strengthened the fourth fingers; the device permanently injured his hands. Schumann again plunged into depression until he married Clara Wieck in 1840. Though her father fervently opposed the wedding, which spiraled into a legal nightmare, the elixir of love rejuvenated Schumann into a professional composer. Yet, his mental state continued to erode over time. Hallucinations of angels and demons became more prominent in his 40s, and Schumann jumped into the Rhine River in 1854. The unsuccessful suicide attempt institutionalized the composer until he died in 1856. 



Schumann experienced a creative spurt of energy when he married Clara, producing 130 love songs in the first year of marriage. He then composed his Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, the "Spring Symphony," to rave reviews in 1941, and a second symphony followed soon after. Clara writes in her diary, "Robert's mind is very creative now, and he began a symphony yesterday which is to consist of one movement, but with an Adagio and finale. I have heard nothing of it as yet, but from seeing Robert's doings, and from hearing a D minor echoing wildly in the distance, I know in advance that this will be another work that is emerging from the depths of his soul."


The D minor symphony premiered on December 6, 1841, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Schumann experimented with a new one-movement form, eliding the traditional four-movement structure into a continuous narrative. Hector Berlioz had earlier explored unifying a symphony with returning themes in Symphonie fantastique (but each movement remained self-contained). The form perplexed the audience, and the lukewarm reviews disappointed its creator. Schumann writes, "The Second Symphony did not have the same great acclaim as the First. I know it stands in no way behind the First, and sooner or later, it will make it on its own." Failing to drum up publishing interest, Schumann shelved the work for ten years. 



While serving as Düsseldorf's municipal Kapellmeister, Schumann completed the Scherzo of Norbert Burgmüller's Second Symphony in D major (Burgmüller died, leaving the work unfinished). By fate, the unfinished work and its D-centered key pushed Schumann to return to his orphaned "second symphony." Schumann revised the D minor symphony in 1851, but by then, he had composed two other symphonies, which are today numbered Symphony No. 2 in C major and Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major "Rhenish."


Beefing up the orchestration with doubling (giving the same line to multiple instruments) and finessing the continuous structure of the symphony (which now had become a fashion of the Romantic Era – à Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto of 1844), the symphony found new life as the Fourth Symphony. The reincarnated symphony debuted on May 15, 1853, at the Das Niederrheinische Musikfest to rave reviews and was posthumously published in 1882. However, not all in Schumann's circle agreed with the heavier changes. Johannes Brahms found the lighter 1841 orchestration superior and had it published in 1891 (with strong objections from Clara).



A heavy doom opens the Ziemlich langsam introduction. The stern opening octave and weaving lines churn a brooding stew from which the work never truly escapes. The lively Lebhaft brings windswept turmoil, ecstatic exuberance, lyrical fantasy, and a short-lived redemption in D major. Schumann withholds a final chord, preventing closure, and takes a D minor jumpcut to the Romanze. Darkness returns in the second Ziemlich langsam, with a less imposing temperature. Prefaced by somber oboe and cellos bound in melody, the sorrowful A-minor reprise comes with a sweet silver lining, a solo violin pointing to a hopeful A major. Yet, escape is futile; the wrath of D minor returns with the Scherzo. 


Much of Schumann's later works reflect his emotional states. The symphony's split personality shifts from gloom, delirium, and joyful mania within every movement. A never-ending cycle from depression to mania. The final transition (Langsam) brings back the inescapable D minor haze for a slow-burn Beethoven-kissed crescendo and rapturous D major triumph (Lebhaft), the ecstasy dialed up tenfold.

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