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Monday, Oct. 10, 2011

The Romance of Robert Schumann at MSO

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Robert Schumann's reputation as a master of Romantic piano music has, to some degree, overshadowed his work in other genres; indeed, it has long been fashionable to bemoan his lack of skill at orchestration. While we must admit to Schumann's relatively inexperienced hand at instrumentation, there is no denying that from his pen flowed four wonderfully evocative, prototypically Romantic symphonies.

Though last in number, Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D Minor was actually composed immediately after his B-Flat Major Symphony (No. 1) in 1841 and predates symphonies two and three. He originally presented the D Minor to his wife, Clara, on her birthday. It wasn't particularly well received by the public and was unperformed and unpublished for 12 years. During this time, Schumann returned to the work again and again; what emerged was something more of a symphonic fantasia, with its four-linked movements, and it is this version that is most often performed and recorded.

Even so, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform the original version of Schumann's Fourth, which is in many ways preferable to the more familiar version and possesses clearer textures than its much-altered final incarnation.

Schumann helped to build the German Romantic symphonic tradition, influencing subsequent masters such as Gustav Mahler who likewise struggled to find their footing in their earliest symphonic gestures. Mahler began work on his Symphony No. 1 in D Major in 1884, completing a five-movement version four years later. He supplied the work with a title, "Titan," from Jean Paul's novel of the same name, as well as a rather detailed program dealing with the struggles of a heroic figure (Mahler himself?), his relationship with nature and his victories over adversity. But Mahler soon dropped both title and program, feeling that the D Major's evocations of pastoral bliss, passion, optimism and irony already said quite enough. Likewise, he extracted the original second movement, returning the work to a more traditional four-movement layout whose opening mood of springtime optimism segues into a funereal march and a stormy, triumphant conclusion.

The self-assertion of the First Symphony's finale maintains a pattern established by Classical and Romantic symphonic masters—a pattern Mahler would subsequently overturn. Mahler's Symphony No. 1 is a stunning achievement for a 20-something composer and, despite its somewhat convoluted genesis, a mature, integrated and highly evocative work.

Maestro Edo de Waart conducts the MSO in performances of these two masterpieces Oct. 14-15 in Uihlein Hall.
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