Posts Tagged: Schumann

On Dynamics

Dynamics are really a blunt set of tools composers have to shape and shade what is supposed to be the most ethereal of art forms.  Most of us regularly use about eight markings: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff.  Brahms made a valiant effort with pf (poco forte) but it never really caught on.  Tchaikovsky made a valiant effort with fffff but now we’re all deaf.

Schoenberg had a great idea with marking lines “Hauptstimme” (main voice) and “Nebenstimme” (next voice), but the whole thing becomes too confusing when try you combine those with the traditionally notated dynamic markings on the page.

Poco forte, btw, is softer than mezzo forte. (I find that most musicians don’t know this.)

A composer has to figure out: at what overall dynamic level should the ensemble should sound? How prominently should x instrument sound within that texture? What effect will the natural acoustic properties of said instrument have in determining its volume? Should that even be taken into account, or should we just go for pure dynamics? Based on the entire history of the literature for their instrument, how are players of x instrument likely to interpret y dynamic?

Jennifer Higdon seems to have this whole thing figured out.

Tchaikovsky was really pretty bad at dynamics overall. Most of the phrasing inherent in his music is in no wise notated by the dynamics (though he did get a lot better at this as he progressed.) I just conducted the 2nd symphony, a charming piece with very sloppy dynamics. Let’s not even talk about the meters.

One of my first composition teachers told me that he would complete an entire piece and then go back and insert the dynamics.  This still boggles my mind.  Go back and refine dynamics, yes, I usually do that about 50 times.  But insert?  Interestingly, he believed wholeheartedly that “dynamics really make or break a piece.”

I just conducted Ralph Vaughan Williams’ cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem”.  I think the old man spent about 30 minutes TOTAL marking the dynamics.  Choral basses, stating the theme of a fugue are marked p with trombones and timpani marked f.  This is symptomatic of this piece, which feels hastily assembled and lumpily misproportioned.  There are some great passages though.

Schumann is so often criticized for his orchestration.  I came of age believing that old lie, and now I’ve totally rejected it.  Yes, there’s a lot of balance problems, but most of those occur because he wrote in block dynamics (like… just about every other composer at that time.)  Get a decent bunch of musicians together and they can usually figure out what’s going on with their parts.  Unlike Tchaikovsky, at least the blocks are correctly dynamicized.

When you’ve got, say, woodwinds playing a chord f and you bring in the trombones mf, how will they know what to do in comparison?  Should you write them a little note?


Harps should always be marked f (and doubled or even tripled – what can I say, I just love the harp!)

Civic Orchestra Addenda, Dec. 8

As is usually the case when I conduct the research for my pre-concert lectures at the Civic Orchestra, I end up with way more information than I can share in the 30 minutes allotted.  Here are some extra insights on the Dec. 8 concert, featuring music of Schumann and Henze.  Welcome Civic Orchestra patrons!

Symphony No. 3 (1851)
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Confusingly, Schumann’s 3rd Symphony is actually the fourth symphony that he conceived – what we now know as the Symphony No. 4 had been composed a full 10 years earlier; we currently number it fourth because Schumann revised it after completing his 3rd Symphony.  Schumann composed the 3rd Symphony as an introduction to his new home of Düsseldorf.  It is full of warm spirit, and folk charm.

This is all the more surprising given that Schumann was very cold to his new surroundings and was hardly charmed by the folk.  The Board of the Musical Society of Düsseldorf had been very keen to acquire the hot young composer from Dresden, and it was only with significant reluctance that Schumann accepted the post of Music Director.

Certain sights in the Rhineland (for which is Rhenish* symphony is named) did inspire him though.  The fourth movement of Schumann’s symphony was inspired by his viewing the Cologne Cathedral, which, as this 1856 photograph clearly shows, was still under construction when he would have seen it:

cologne cathedral

This cathedral would become the world’s tallest structure from 1880-1884, and it inspired Schumann to compose music that he imagined to be “An Accompaniment to a Solemn Ceremony”.

Symphony No. 3, 4th movement

Schumann did not last long at his post in Düsseldorf, however — it seems that, then as now, a good composer did not necessarily  a good conductor make.  Apparently Schumann was simply unequipped to bring an orchestra or a chorus up to snuff.  Contemporary reports note that he

appeared totally immersed in the score, paying little attention even to the musicians; he lived in the tones.

Schumann became increasingly dissatisfied with his post, noting in his diaries that each rehearsal was “more dreadful” than the last.  Musical politics were hardly any better in the 19th century than they are now, and he became particularly paranoid when he read an anonymous review of one of his concerts, “because he suspected the author was a member of the music committee.”

The public themselves didn’t much go in for Schumann’s concerts – they found his programming unfriendly and noted that he was only interested in severe, modern music, i.e. his own, and that of Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner.  Audiences today don’t know how good they have it!

Speaking of modern music…

*”Rhenish” has got to be about one of the most delicious words in the English language – particularly because of how much it skews the noun that gave it birth (Rhine).

Symphony No. 8 (1992-3)
Hans Werner Henze (born 1926)


The German-Italian composer Hans Werner Henze was sort of exactly what one expects from a 20th century European musician – scarred by WWII, devoutly Marxist, brazenly homosexual – and his music is a mixture of all this and more.


The central episode of Henze’s life seems to be the major scandal that surrounded the December 1968 première of his oratorio Das Floß der “Medusa” which presented the saga of the Medusa, a ship that had been abandoned by its captain and crew in the early 19th century.  Henze (somehow) cast this as a broad political allegory about the life of Che Guevara.  So what happened?

The trouble at the first performance … started before a note of the music was heard in the auditorium.  Groups of left-wing students showered the audience with leaflets protesting against materialism, the consumer culture and various political causes.  A poster of Guevara was put up on the podium, only to be torn down and ripped up by the local director of radio who had organized the concert.  The students retaliated by placing a red flag on stage.  This provoked complaints form the members of the chorus and an appeal was made to Henze to remove it.

Eventually, people, including the librettist, were beaten and arrested by the police.  Apparently 1968 was a tough time to be a classical musician.

Here’s some of what the audience didn’t get to hear that night:

Der Floß der Medusa

Henze composed his 8th Symphony in the early ’90’s on a commission from the Boston Symphony.  It is a highly theatrical work – in fact, the composer took his inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is a bit of a lighter work in comparison with it’s immediate predecessor, the Requiem of 1992:

A huge amount of Henze’s extensive output is available on CD, including all of his symphonies up through No. 10 (composed in 2000).  You can download much of his music from iTunes here, or you can browse CDs at Amazon here.  For those interested in more about Henze’s life, I highly recommend Guy Rickards’ tripartite biography Hindemith, Hartmann and Henze available at here.

Feel free to leave a note in the comments section to share your opinions of the concert!  Also, feel free to peruse the rest of my site at your own risk, in full awareness that hereafter, the Chicago Symphony/Civic Orchestras have nothing to do with the content on this site…