The first symphony of Robert Schumann carries the subtitle “Frühlings,” which means “Spring.”
Clara Schumann wrote in her diary that the title was taken from a poem by Adolf Böttger, and many listeners believe they can hear the poem’s closing lines — “O, turn, O turn and change your course/In the valley, Spring blooms forth!” — in the opening notes of the symphony (in German, of course). Robert and Clara Schumann had been married the year before, and she had encouraged him to write more orchestra works. In her diary she wrote that “his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano.”
Schumann’s Spring Symphony was debuted on March 31, 1841 in Leipzig. The conductor was Felix Mendelssohn.
Schumann was thirty years old, newly married, and feeling inspired as his oeuvre expanded to new horizons with his first orchestra venture. Some believe the symphony’s subtitle may refer to his feelings of “Liebesfrühling,” or the “Spring of Love” — this in stark contrast to the unhappiness and depression which plagued the later years of his short life.
After completing the first symphony, he wrote to Mendelssohn to ask if he “could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into [the] orchestra as they play?
That was what was most in my mind when I wrote in January 1841. I should like the very first trumpet entrance to sound as if it came from on high, like a summons to awakening. Further on in the introduction, I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air, and then, in the Allegro, to show how everything to do with spring is coming alive.
Schumann’s last completed work in 1854 was a series of variations on a theme. It had been suggested to him by a spirit in a vision, perhaps that of the late Mendelssohn, who had died after a series of strokes several years earlier. The spirit vision was one of increasing symptoms Schumann exhibited, which have since been attributed to perhaps syphilis, mercury poisoning, or bipolar disorder. He spent the last two years of his life in a sanitarium after a suicide attempt soon after completing the variations, the “Liebesfrühling” of happier times a distant memory. Clara Schumann was only allowed to see him once, days before his death on July 29, 1856. He was hardly able to speak.
This recording of the symphony was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Daniel Barenboim.