Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120

Robert Schumann

Born 8 June, 1810 in Zwickau, Saxony, Germany

Died 29 July 1856 in Endenich, near Bonn, Germany


Youthful work, delayed publication

By the time Robert Schumann’s D minor symphony was published in 1853, the composer had already suffered several of the attacks that were to result in his incarceration in a mental asylum the following year. The late publication number, Opus 120, is misleading in the case of this wonderful symphony, whose music represents Schumann’s inspiration at its freshest and most fertile. We have in the Fourth Symphony a classic case of a delayed publication bearing only a marginal relationship to the genesis of the work.

During his younger, healthier years, Schumann’s manic/depressive personality manifested itself in extremely intensive periods of work on a particular genre of music. That is one reason so many of his early published compositions are for solo piano:  in Opus 1 through Opus 23 inclusive, he focused exclusively on the keyboard. By contrast, 1840 was a year of dozens of songs; 1841 yielded a wealth of orchestral compositions, and in 1842 he concentrated his efforts on chamber music, including the splendid Piano Quintet. Schumann’s first version of the Fourth Symphony dates from 1841, his so-called “orchestral” year.  Thus in the chronological sense, the D-minor symphony was actually Schumann’s second symphony; its designation as Fourth derives from the delay in publication.

Birthday gift

Schumann is believed to have presented the 1841 version of the D-minor Symphony to his wife, the eminent pianist Clara Schumann, as a birthday present in mid-September 1841. He apparently composed quite rapidly, for an entry in Clara’s diary from early September reads:

Yesterday he began another symphony. I have not heard anything of it so far, but at times I catch the sound of a fiery D-minor in the distance, and I can see from the way he acts that it will be another work drawn from the very depths of his soul.

Following a cool response at the work’s first performance in Leipzig late in 1841, Schumann withdrew it. The symphony lay fallow for a decade, while he busied himself with other projects and fended off the attacks of illness that began to plague him more frequently during the 1840s. After a year in Düsseldorf, he pulled the neglected manuscript off the shelf in 1851, making some structural revisions and rescoring it altogether. The Symphony was performed in its new version in Düsseldorf in December 1851 and published a little over a year later.

Absolute music and inspired thematic unity

The musical substance of the revised version remains as inspired and imaginative as his first draft from 1841, a period during which he was pouring forth musical masterpieces at an astonishing rate. The symphony is one of his tightest and most successful formal constructions.

One of the Fourth Symphony’s distinguishing features is that it has none of the programmatic associations that permeate many of his compositions.  Unlike his other subtitled symphonies, “Spring” and “Rhenish”, the fourth stands on its own merits as absolute music.  It is a work of taut thematic unity. Two principal melodic/motivic ideas, set forth in the slow introduction to the first movement, dominate the entire musical fabric. Schumann’s models for this technique were several:  Beethoven in the Fifth Symphony, Berlioz in the Symphonie Fantastique, and Schubert in the Wanderer Fantasie.

Formal innovation: seamless structure

In the original version, the movements were separate, with the Scherzo proceeding attacca to the finale. In his 1851 revision, the Symphony is even more tightly bound, with transitional passages added to connect the movements.  (Mendelssohn’s seamless Scottish Symphony, which appeared in 1842, may have exerted an additional influence on this revised version.)  The extended one-movement form in clear-cut sonata sections is one of Schumann’s most exciting and innovative achievements and makes this Symphony the most compact of his four.

The Fourth Symphony opens on the dominant of A:  arresting, questioning, restrained, mysterious. Schumann attracts our attention in the subtlest of ways with the sinuous first idea. His introduction does not end, but rather accelerates until its momentum has evolved into the body of the movement. A splendid, lyrical third idea is introduced in the course of the movement, which ends in exhilarated D major. The slow movement, a classic Schumannesque romance, features a plaintive oboe solo. This is the strongest movement from the standpoint of orchestration, for example in the section where the concertmaster weaves a related filigree line above the balance of the first violins. Both elegiac and folk-like, this romantic movement seems over too soon, it is so lovely. Next comes a vigorous and masculine scherzo, whose transition to the more contrapuntal finale is one of Schumann’s most ingenious touches. The Symphony closes in brilliant and triumphant D-major, with an extended coda that Schumann equaled only in the magnificent Piano Quintet.

Schumann scored the Fourth Symphony for woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.