Schumann orchestration and Mozart tempi….

I voiced concerns here on Wednesday about cycles in general, and mentioned that it felt like the first manifestations of cycle-phobia were appearing in this rehearsal sequence. I needn’t have worried- Bobby (Bobby Schumann) has seen us through. The 2nd Symphony has proved to be an irresistible force. All 4 of the Schumann symphonies are great, but the 2nd is the greatest. Much as it might be nice to finish the cycle with the best piece, maybe it is good to put such a miraculous piece in the middle to lift us all on to the final stages of the cycle. When one of our bassoonists asked me “are all his symphonies this good” on Wednesday, all I could say is that all his symphonies are pretty damn good, but……

I asked my colleague in the orchestra what she disliked about rehearsing Schumann and we had a good chat. To my delight, she said she was loving rehearsing this piece and that it was just the scrubando writing in the 3rd she found exhausting.

One can’t rehearse Schumann’s orchestral music without recalling all the many clichés about his problems as an orchestrator. To me, Schumann has one of the great ears for color of any composer. Think of the brass writing in the 4th movement of the 3rd symphony, or the slow movement of the cello concerto where the soloist and the principal cellist of the orchestra link hands for one of the most miraculously beautiful passages in any piece.

Where Schumann is most often faulted is in the area of balance, but poor orchestral balance is not a composer’s fault but a conductor’s, especially in music of this period. Symphonies from Haydn to Brahms were expected by their authors to be played by orchestras ranging in size from 30 to 110 players. Any of these composers would have expected a good conductor to make adjustments- Beethoven himself used alternations of full and reduced string sections in performances of his symphonies with large orchestras, but not with small groups where everyone played all the time. Any 18th or 19th century composer would have doubled the woodwinds, and in some cases even the brass for a performance with a huge string section, but might have reduced the wind dynamics for performances with a small one.

If you hear a Schumann symphony in a 3000 seat modern hall, you are already hearing something Schumann would not have planned for- halls in his day were much smaller than that. It’s up to a conductor to decide the best balance of forces for that space- if you get the right size band on stage, you can make fewer adjustments throughout a piece.

I don’t think of adjusting dynamics within a texture (such as having the brass release a long chord after an attack, or having the first violins play a sustained high note softer so that an inner voice can come out) as making changes- Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann or Mendelssohn would have all expected the performer to do that, as they wrote what they expected the audience hear, not what they expected the players to do, unlike Mahler, who tells the players what to do in order for the audience to hear what he wanted them to. Having 4 oboes play an ff passage instead of 2 is not re-orchestration, nor is changing a string accompaniment of a wind solo from mf to mp in a performance with a huge string section (or, even only using half the section).

Beyond that, I’ve never been tempted to change a bar of Schumann’s orchestration- his ear for color is too imaginative and inspired, and it has just never been necessary. Even with a passage that seems impossible for balance, the price of taking shortcuts is always high. In the last movement of Schu2 there is a passage at bar 134 where the horns and bassoons alternate bars of triplets in a quite noisy texture. The horns are easily heard, the bassoons usually lost- they’re softer by nature than the modern horn and in a weaker register. I just heard a fine recording where the conductor had brought in 2 extra horn players and given the bassoon part to them to solve the problem, but he created bigger problems than he solved. The triplets became quite overbearing, and the lack of variety in the color was clearly un-Schumannian. He should have hired two extra bassoons to double there and changed them to ff and the horns to mf- that is the adjustment Schumann would have expected, and therefore NOT a change…

Finally- we’re rehearsing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola tonight, which I just conducted last week with the LCO. It is very unlike me to do this piece 2 times in such close succession, as I try to avoid it. Yes, it is beautiful, especially the slow movement, but it seems one of those pieces that is cursed. Most performances I hear have some HUGE indulgences, flaws and fiascos that you don’t tend to hear in other Mozart concertos.

First, more often than not, the soloists are poorly matched or not matched at all. Think of all those performances by an orchestra’s concertmaster and principal violist that simply hammer home the fact that they were born in different centuries, studied on different continents and don’t like each other. Then there is the “reward for good behavior” soloist pairing- when 2 members of the local youth orchestra get to do it before they head off to college where they would have learned how to play Mozart. Then there is the “it’s really a viola concerto” performance- the violist gets so over-excited that they become a little obsessive about the piece and plays insanely loud, while the violinist, flush with 5 concertos of his own, comes in unprepared and undermotivated, skidding all over the string and playing horrible out of tune. This week, we’re doing it with 2 members of the Heath Quartet, which should be a good match.

Then there are the horrible traditions and performance clichés that have been piled on this poor work, ones that have long since been eradicated from most of the other Mozart concerti. All those annoying, un-Mozartian tempo changes in the first movement…. Yuck!

And then there is the poor slow movement- one of the great ones in the literature. It’s just Andante, which, as we all know, doesn’t mean slow, it means walking. Piu andante in Mozart means go faster!

I once got in terrible trouble over a Mozart Andante. I was doing one of the flute concerti, and the soloist’s teacher gave me the video of Galway playing it with the Mostly Mozart orchestra to study. Aside from the heavenly flute playing, it was pretty dire, and the slow movement was beyond funereal. I was sure he didn’t mean me to copy that tempo. We got to the rehearsal and I started the movement at a normal-ish Andante clip and the teacher barked from the hall that it was too fast. In my best nice-guy voice, I said something like “but it is Andante and not Adagio…” Just that, nothing more…The next morning he called my boss and yelled for 20 minutes about my arrogant attitude. My boss then pulled me in and asked me point blank “so how slow did he want you to go?” I played him the tape and he warned me to be more diplomatic in future…

My revenge came about a year later when Emmanuel Pahud did the same piece in town, with a lovely flowing Andante. Well, he’d become the flutist of the day, surpassing Galway by this point, and the next I’d heard the same flute teacher was telling other conductors- “it’s too slow, Andante and not Adagio….” Just goes to say that who says a thing means more than what gets said.


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “Schumann orchestration and Mozart tempi….”

  1. ulisses Amaral

    This is the first time I stumbled upon this blog. I know this is not a new post but I must say what an excellent post. I just loved the story about the flutist and Mozart tempi. Keep up. Cheers from Sydney

  2. J. Barber

    I appreciate your comments about Schumann’s orchestrations. Evidence suggests that the criticism that he was “a poor orchestrator” is rooted not in facts but politics (traditionalists vs. Neu Deutsch Wagnerians). Regrettably, it has persisted for 150 years. As for Mahler’s so-called reorchestrations, I have classified his markings for Symphony no. 1 (and studied the revisings of nos. 2 and 3) and the majority have to do with dynamics. Greenville, NC, USA

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi, J

    You are quite right about the Mahler re-touchings. He mostly thins the texture, by graduating the dynamics or by just removing doublings, and very rarely adds anything. Most conductors who tweak Schumann’s orchestrations do more or less the same thing. It’s just, generally speaking a waste of time, but there are exceptions where clarifications are needed for modern players, but that is another blog post.

    Thanks for reading


  4. Jim Nicholas

    Thank you for defending Schumann’s orchestration! The Cello concerto is full of imaginative and forward-looking touches.

    Hope that many will take up the cause of the Violin Concerto. The tide does seem to be turning on that one.

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