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Echoes of the Rhine: Unveiling the Enchanting Mystique of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony

November 8, 2023

Echoes of the Rhine: Unveiling the Enchanting Mystique of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony

This November, the Colorado Symphony presents Schumann’s Third Symphony. Nicknamed “Rhenish” and composed in just over a month in November 1850, this symphony dates from the beginning of his tenure as municipal music director in Düsseldorf, a town situated on the famously scenic Rhine River. The nickname “Rhenish”—having to do with the Rhine and its surroundings—quickly attached itself to the work. Although this moniker did not derive from the composer himself, Schumann wryly noted that the symphony “perhaps reflects something of Rhenish life here and there.” 

Indeed, Schumann remarked of the symphony that “I wished popular elements to prevail here and think I have succeeded.” The symphony brilliantly evokes a “folk-like” atmosphere and has maintained a broad appeal since its February 1851 premiere.

Beethoven was a likely source of inspiration for Schumann — like Beethoven’s Eroica, this symphony is in E-flat major and begins in triple meter. There are also inevitable comparisons to his Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral symphonies as well as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. However, Schumann’s “Rhenish” is a wholly unique and original conception, and it’s impact on music history is in many ways equally, and more subtly, as important as its more famous predecessors. Rather than evoke the military heroics of the Napoleonic era as Beethoven does, this joyous, surging music seems more like a force of nature—perhaps evoking the River Rhine itself.

The Rhenish is less an attempt to paint a natural landscape than an attempt to recreate the feelings associated with the landscape.  In that context, Schumann succeeds beautifully.  The opening movement features one of music’s most majestic themes. The second movement is not a typical Beethovenian scherzo brimming with energy and drive, but instead a relaxed and flowing folk dance.  After a delicate and calm third movement, the fourth begins with a hauntingly serene chorale in the trombones, builds in complexity and momentum, and bursts into a noble chorale, which was inspired by an experience Schumann had in a cathedral in Cologne. The finale reasserts the triumphant spirit of E-flat and the symphony ends in a blaze of tonic chords.

Here are four more facts about the “Rhenish” Symphony that will enhance your listening experience this November at Boettcher Concert Hall

  • A Symphonic Love Letter to the Rhine: Schumann’s Third Symphony is a heartfelt musical tribute to the stunning Rhine River. With its expressive melodies and evocative storytelling, this symphony transports you to the enchanting landscapes and vibrant cultures that line the riverbanks, making it a captivating sonic postcard. 
  • Unconventional Storytelling: This symphony stands out with its five movements, challenging the traditional four-movement structure of most symphonies. The “Cologne Cathedral” movement, in particular, showcases Schumann’s boldness as a composer, promising a concert experience that’s both imaginative and unexpected. 
  • The Romantic Era Unveiled: Immerse yourself in the Romantic era, a period renowned for its focus on individual expression and emotional intensity. Schumann’s Third Symphony is a prime example of this artistic movement, offering an opportunity to experience the raw emotions and innovative spirit of the time. 
  • The Majesty of “Cologne Cathedral”: Schumann was very inspired by his visit to Cologne on September 29, 1850. The city and its great cathedral, still unfinished centuries after its inception, made such a powerful impression on the composer that he determined to write a work that captured the essence of Rhenish life. The symphony’s fourth movement, inspired by Cologne Cathedral, is a musical marvel that captures the essence of this iconic monument. The breathtaking architecture comes to life through the orchestra, creating an awe-inspiring and transcendent musical experience.

Don’t miss your chance to be part of this symphonic adventure along the Rhine River, a testament to the power of music to evoke imagery and emotion. Secure your tickets now for an unforgettable experience! 

Dragon Conducts Schumann

A season-long celebration of our renowned Colorado Symphony Chorus begins, commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the ensemble with their founder and director, Duain Wolfe, conducting Gary Fry’s To Dream Again, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, and Bruckner’s Psalm 150. Resident Conductor Christopher Dragon conducts Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 on the second half of the program.

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