Bobby’s 4th

I have to say that, exhausted as I was coming to rehearsal from Heathrow after my flight back from Boston, I could hardly hide my glee as the SMP and I read the first movement of Schumann 4 on Monday night. It went so well, I almost complimented them, but that’s bad luck (for instance, the most important thing advice I can offer any conductor is never to praise or criticize a horn player until after the concert). We’ll save compliments for a safer hour (although I know several will read this before rehearsal tonight).

My glee is due to the fact that with more than half our Schumann exploration now behind us, I could really feel that first rehearsal was proof positive that we have accomplished something together in terms of learning the grammar of Schumann’s music language. Having just done another Schumann symphony with a fine orchestra who have done almost nothing by Bobby S in recent memory, it really hit home how much I had had to explain and ask for with the other band, and how much the SMP were doing right off.

So what is the key playing Schumann well?

It’s depressingly simple- play it like the great music it is. All the complete and total condescending and inane crap we’ve all heard about Schumann’s orchestration, sanity and supposed weaknesses as a composer means that most musicians, completely without malice, read his music with terribly low expectations. They disregard dynamics and tempi, and don’t throw themselves into the music as they would if it was Beethoven or Brahms. Not long ago I did a Schumann work with a guest timpanist, nice guy, who asked me about possible note changes saying “well, we all know Schumann was pretty careless with timpani notes.” WTF?!?!?!??!?! The result is grey and grim playing and tedious rehearsals, all of which reinforces those same sad, wrong preconceptions. Last night the SMP ripped into the piece as if they fully expected it to be great, and why shouldn’t they? Our last 2 Bobby S symphonies left the audiences screaming and hollering.

So, the secret to being a Schumann specialist is to trust him and take what he wrote seriously. No secret insight is required. Likewise, I remember vividly studying Bloch’s  Schelomo with Parry Karp, who is in my opinion, the world expert on Bloch’s string music. I was so excited to find out the “secret handshake” of Bloch playing, which turned out to be playing exactly what the dead guy wrote in the score. The results were stunning! Depressingly, many teachers seem to think that holding out the notion that somehow they are the keepers of secret knowledge not in the score is often the norm. They put power over their students ahead of teaching the truth of the music.

I mentioned yesterday that we are playing the first Leonore Overture (no. 2) on the same concert, giving us a chance to juxtapose two pieces that were famously revised. The original version of Schumann 4 has come back into fashion in the last 15 years, and has been recorded many times. It’s quite interesting, but as so happens with Schumann, the re-emergence of this version has been used as a new hammer with which to beat the reputation of the great Bobby S.

Anytime a piece exists in more than one version there are bound to be things in the original that, on their own, are cooler than in the revision. Usually, when they disappear in the revision it is because they caused problems for the piece as a whole- perhaps they overpowered what was to come, or revealed too much of where the music needed to go, or brought the form to a halt. For instance, Leonore 2 is full of things that are extremely cool but demand incredible concentration from the audience- like the vast silences after the ff chords in the introduction. I think one night with a coughing, shuffling audience probably convinced Beethoven that he needed to fill those gaps, but in the concert hall or on recording, the effect can be stunning. Also, the piece was too dramatic and complete to serve as a prelude to the opera which followed it.

That said, I find it remarkable how much better the revised version of Schumann 4 is- not because I expected Bobby to botch the re-write, but because the new, trendy view seems to be so solidly that the original is in some ways better (this started with Brahms, who was also badly wrong about the Violin Concerto- many of the misjudgements about Bobby come from his 3 closest soulmates, Joachim, Clara and Brahms, all of whom were too close to his final illness and badly misjudged the work of his later years).

The fact is that the revision is much more coherent, powerful, focused and lucid. The transitions all work better, the counterpoint is stronger, the sense of direction more compelling. I last did this piece on my final concert with the Grande Ronde Symphony. It’s placement on a momentous night of my life tells you something of how much I love it, but I still long considered it a slightly lesser work than the 2nd and 3rd symphonies. Now I’m not so sure- like Brahms, it’s almost impossible to pick the best Schumann symphony. The D minor is intentionally slight in some ways (he considered calling it Symphonic Fantasy), but somehow it’s structural tautness means that the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. Where the 2nd is truly epic, the 4th moves ahead with almost cinematic alacrity, which meant the cumulative energy of the symphony is titanicly explosive.

Most stupidly, many critics (following Brahms misguided lead) seem to think that the orchestration of the revision is inferior to that of the original. Both versions are beautifully orchestrated, but the revision is clearly better. Schumann wanted a bigger, more robust sound, and he got what he wanted. Schumann was an early Romantic composer- orchestration had not yet attained the status of almost a separate art that it would once Wagner arrived, but his imagination is astonishing. Remember, we just did the Konzerstucke for 4 Horns last month, which, considering the valve horn was a brand new invention, is quite simply the most creative and effective writing for horn quartet in musical history. The 4th is full of great orchestral moments, particularly his compelling dramatic use of the trombones at the key moments of the piece, as well as the wonderful colors in the Romanze, particularly the mixture of solo cello and oboe, and the beautiful violin solo in the b section. Karajan got it- he made a point in his recordings of all the Schumann symphonies not to re-touch anything. The results speak for themselves.

Too often, though, the audience doesn’t get to hear what a good conductor can see on the page because conductor and orchestra approach Bobby’s orchestration with scandalously low expectations, and they get what they were after. When we play a Mahler symphony or a Strauss tone poem (or even a Beethoven overture, whose orchestral writing is far more problematic), we expect the orchestration to be great, and that translates into a kind of hyper-energized playing that brings the musical content vividly to life. Schumann deserves the same treatment, and now SMP seem to get that- they’re playing it with the swagger that comes from knowing that the audience is going to go berserk for it. Fun.

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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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2 comments on “Bobby’s 4th”

  1. Eric S.

    Hi Ken — I can assure you that the timpani note issue is legitimate, though I am an ardent Schumann lover and would never describe him as a “careless” composer. The fact remains, though, that in a number of Romantic compositions, written pre-pedal timpani, there are situations where the timpanist has a sustained note, often forte or louder, that is completely outside the general harmony; such moments are therefore difficult for a sensitive timpanist to perform without cringing. (The most egregious example in my performance experience is in the Rossini Stabat Mater.) At the very least, I believe the situation is worthy of discussion with the conductor, and if the note written is to be performed, it should not be out of blind adherence to “come scritto.”
    In most such situations, it is possible to add a single pitch to the gamut, preferably a P5th away from a member of the tonic-dominant pair, that will allow one to replace the “wrong” note with the root, third or fifth of the prevailing harmony. Above all, it must not sound like a trombone part! — though I have heard “solutions” that go way too far in that direction, IMHO (particularly in the expo of Dvorak 9/I, sequence leading to the G minor flute theme). You may also be surprised by how often pitches are slyly added (by “rogue timpanists?”) to allow roots to be substituted for 3rds/5ths/7ths, which I do not condone whatsoever. Once when listening to a radio broadcast of a major symphony orchestra performing Beethoven 9, I just about drove off the road upon hearing the climactic “vor Gott!” cadence supported by the timpanist’s thundering low F! (Beethoven, more than any composer of the time, came up with ingenious solutions to the problems described above.)

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Eric! Good to hear from you.

    Of course, you are absolutely right about this issue- it is one I’ve meant to write about here before because it does come up. Your key phrase, though, is “ingenius solutions.” One of the delights of doing these pieces over and over again is that one gets to hear, and possibly discuss, different timpanists solutions to these problems, from come scritto to practically doubling the melody. Your other point, though, is that these issues are a result of the fact that the drums themselves were a limiting factor in that time, and that composers had to make tough choices about how best to deploy the pitchest available to them. Schumann was anything but careless- he did the best with what was available to him that he could, as did Beethoven.

    I’m reminded of one of my favorite issues- in Leonore 3, bar 27, we have the first fff in the piece (one of only a tiny handful in all of Beethoven’s music). The bass pitch is A-flat, which has programatic significance the overture because it is going to return in the soprano at the other fff in the piece in the coda. The timps, however, are on c, which works just fine in an A-flat chord. However, when a conductor eggs on the timpanist to the point that the A-flat is completely obliterated, a huge layer of meaning is also obliterated. This seems to happen especially with period bands, who like to show off those wicked old drums. I had an old Harnoncourt recording which was AWFUL at that spot (and I’m a big Harnoncourt guy).

    Amazingly, the problem is worse in Leonore 2, because the parallell ff outburst ends with the bass instruments resolving up to A natural instead of staying on A flat. Perfomed in the Harnoncourt manner, the harmony change is lost completely- one just hears the c.

    The point is that the c is a “good” note in that context and doesn’t need to be changed. It’s not the composer who is careless, but possibly the conductor…..


    BTW- I told the timpanist in question to use his ears and I’d tell him if any changes rankled. He took the score and had a look with the part and did leave a few changes in, but mostly played the ink.

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