Longing for Spring
While the chief duty of a court composer in the 18th century was to satisfy the tastes of his master, a freelance artist was faced with an incomparably more complex task. The overwhelmingly bourgeois audiences of the first public concerts consisted in equal measure of dyed-in-the-wool music connoisseurs and relatively clueless enthusiasts. “To win applause”, wrote Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to his father, “one must write stuff so simple that a coachman could sing it, or so incomprehensible that it pleases simply because no sensible man can comprehend it.”
In his double role of composer and soloist, Mozart was particularly well positioned to test that strategy on the Viennese public with his piano concertos – a genre that he developed, practically without models, in some two dozen works. The B flat major Concerto completed on 5 January would be his last – he could not have suspected that. Marked by gracious simplicity, as only a Mozart could dare, it ends with a cheerful rondo based on the song Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling (Longing for Spring), with the text “Komm, lieber Mai, und mache die Bäume wieder grün” (“Come, dear Spring, and make the trees green again”).
Fifty years later, Robert Schumann sketched his First Symphony in a mere four days of “vernal passion”. Until then, he had long been plagued by severe “symphonic scruples”. Beethoven’s legacy weighed heavily. In 1839 the inhibiting knot was undone in a Viennese attic where, among Franz Schubert’s posthumous papers, Schumann discovered the so-called “Great C major Symphony” and in it a “whole new world”. When he heard the piece in rehearsal, he confessed to his fiancée Clara Wieck: “I wish for nothing except that you were my wife and I myself could write such symphonies.”
Both were easier said than done because Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck tried everything in his power to prevent the couple’s wedding. A composer without means who had nothing to offer his daughter, already a famous pianist, was out of the question as a bridegroom. Schumann would surely have used the prestige of a successful debut as symphonic composer in his own defence, but that breakthrough was too slow in coming. Instead he took Wieck to court – and won.
The hard-earned marriage in autumn 1840 brought a decisive motivational boost for writing the sunny “Spring Symphony”, as Schumann christened his First. Its opening fanfare, which recalls Schubert’s C major Symphony, he rhythmically underlaid with the motto “O wende, wende deinen Lauf. Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf!” – “Oh turn, oh turn and change your course. Now in the valley blooms the Spring!” But there were still some scruples left smouldering. Before he presented himself to the Leipzig public with his symphonic first-born, Schumann sought the reassuring advice of friends like Felix Mendelssohn. Then he revised – and triumphed! Schumann’s First gave its lucky author great joy while also heralding a new symphonic spring.