Robert Schumann and the Study of Orchestral Composition: The genesis of the First Symphony, op. 38 by Jon W. Finson

Yale University Press/Oxford, 72s



Jon W. Finson's pages tell us everything that meticulous research can disclose about Schumann's first symphonic attempts, in his early twenties (1832-3), their relevance to op 38, the process of its rapid sketching in January 1841 (with fifteen illustrations reproduced from the Library of Congress autograph), its compositional antecedents in Schubert and Beethoven, its self-taught orchestral skills, its scoring and revision, its contemporary recep­tion and critique. The relevant biographical and historical data are duly noted; the manu­script and published sources have been diligently studied and appositely cited, and the six-page bibliography is exemplary.

   It is rare and agreeable to find any book, even a narrowly specialized monograph, that so totally tills its defined field. No one else need ever delve so deep or work so hard again, within the same confines. But these impose their own limitations, and the harvest may well disappoint many serious Schumannians. Of course musicological scholarship at this ex­acting level must entail close textual analysis in technical terms; and everything that is said here about structures and sonorities as such strikes me as absolutely sound. But the un-argued and counter-factual assumption that the arch-Romantic Schumann really wrote "absolute music" derives from an anti-verbal bias which cannot be the best basis for book-writing. It risks deverbalizing everything, in­cluding prose style and logical thought as well as poetic inspiration.

   As a result, the same ideas and words are persistently overworked, passim. Thus "Schumann's highly abstract notion of architectonic form", his "abstract plan", his "concept of architectonic form" and his "heavy reliance on highly abstract architec­tonic concepts", occur on consecutive pages. Conversely, important points about perform­ance practice become badly blunted. "Probably spurious", "Verhulst's anecdote rings un­true" and so forth are mere subjective rejections of the recorded testimony that Schumann in 1853 wished he had retained his original version of the opening fanfare, beginning on the keynote. That was how Verhulst, and Mahler after him, interpreted it; they, and that amendment, are entitled to our dispassionate attention.

So are the even better attested poetic impulse and expressive content of the music it­self. We learn a great deal about the symphony's background and its supposed significance for Schumann's emergence as a composer, but nothing of substance about its actual significance for its hearers, or per se. The composer's own strong words in a letter of 1843 are diluted by inexact translation and taken to describe "the details of performance", even though they in fact explicitly apply to the springtime emotions that Schumann had felt impelled to express and communicate. Thus he wanted "the very first trumpet entry to sound from on high like a call to awaken", just as he had heard it in his own exalted Romantic im­agination. But such notions of inspiration are here disparagingly relegated to empyrean realms mapped as "mysterious" or "inexplicable" and replaced by down-to-earth technical know-how.

   Times and places change, and attitudes with them; but some Schumann values have surely been mislaid in transit. In particular the poetic genesis is the analyst's exodus. It was Adolph Böttger, on clear evidence, who provided the vernal impulse for the Spring Symphony, op 38. He is here wrongly identified as the libret­tist of Das Paradies and die Peri; and his inspiring lyric couplets are casually cited from a secondary source, with a dozen mistakes in text and translation. This non-verbal approach, which leaves so much of the music unexplored, also extends to the editing; there are too many such errata in this expensive product of a learned press.


Times Literary Supplement, Nov. 1989 © the estate of eric sams

Eric Sams' reply to Jon Finson's Letter (TLS, Jan. 1990) 


Sir, - I am sorry that Jon W. Finson (Letters, December 22-28) feels justified in calling my review misleading, uninformed, irresponsible, prejudiced and so forth. If he will kindly calm down and re-examine the well-known sources he cites, he will see that they all support my stance and undermine his own. Thus they identify Böttger as a "Textbearbeiter" of Das Paradies and die Peri, ie, text-editor or reviser, not its librettist as Professor Finson asserts. As to Schumann's regrets about his First Symphony's opening fanfare, of course a long European tradition traceable to the composer himself cannot now be dismissed from North Carolina as "probably spurious". That was not "due scepticism"; it was undue arrogance.

   Finson's attempts to foist his own notions of "absolute music" on to Schumann, by means of one brief phrase poorly translated and wrongly construed, are utterly contra­dicted by that arch-Romantic's entire oeuvre in music or words, including the phrase in question. Its source, the famous long essay on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, is in fact devoted to treating music as anything but absolute. It actually begins by asserting, in plain terms, what Finson feigns that Schumann denies, namely that music represents ideas. That same opening paragraph also explains what Schumann meant by "spirit", namely anything but the "purely musical thought" that Finson claims. Of course Schumann concluded  that the main (not "truly important") thing about Berlioz's programme symphony was how it stood up (nothing about "intrinsic values") without text and commentary of "explanation"); but to interpret that remark as a formal profession of faith in "absolute music" is ridiculous.


Eric Sams