[REPOST] Schumann and his symphonies

This afternoon I heard a performance of Schumann’s E-flat symphony.
(Never mind whose; if I ever hear a good performance, you may be
sure I will tell you, as a matter of urgency, even if it is the middle
of the night somewhere on Earth.) It was a clean reading, which does
not come free; but that only went to show that in Schumann’s case, a
clean reading is not enough.

Mahler thought so too, but he seems to have thought that the scoring was
the problem, and that it couldn’t even be balanced, but needed to be
extensively changed. In other words, he blamed Schumann for requiring
him (Mahler) to do his (Mahler’s) job. (Stay: did Mahler think that
Schumann was requiring him (Mahler) to do his (Schumann’s) job?
<gumby>Brain hurts</gumby>)

The scoring is not the problem, although it does require balancing (as
whose does not?) and although smaller string sections help, which is
suggestive. It would probably be impossible today to find an aircheck
of the 1979 performance by the National Gallery (of Art, Washington, DC)
Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bales, who recognized the great
challenge of the piece, which is differentiating the tempi of the inner
three movements. Among the modern discography, I recommend Thomas
Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. But no one understands the

The problem is not the scoring, but the rhetoric. Someone (I cannot
remember who) wrote that each symphonic movement by Schumann is a single
continuous melody. This is very nearly true, nearly enough to make the
exceptions (such as the erasing gestures in the D-minor symphony)
irrelevant. And this in turn dictates the scoring, once you look at
Schumann’s piano music and see how he weaves his single continuous
melodies into his textures in works like the C-major Fantasy. Schumann
writes piano music for orchestra, which is of course inexcusable on one
level, but he does not do it the way so many other composers do, because
he doesn’t write piano music the way they do either. Schumann’s scoring
for orchestra is an exact recalculation in orchestral terms of his
keyboard scoring.

The conductor’s task is not so much to “balance” these textures (as one
might attempt to juggle fishnet), as it is to teach the players how to
listen and thereby to gauge the nature of their contribution to each

The rest (sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper) is phrasing.

(originally posted 22 August 2017)

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