Sir John Eliot Gardiner on Robert Schumann

In 2018, Sir John Eliot Gardiner launched his Schumann cycle, recorded for LSO Live, with concerts at the Barbican and on tour in Germany. In an excerpt from a conversation with David Nice, he introduced us to Robert Schumann's orchestral music, which we are bringing to your living rooms this Thursday (26 March 2020).


Schumann: The Symphonist

'Schumann had huge ambitions for his symphonies and his big choral works. But there has been this thick web of misunderstanding surrounding him, which started with Richard Wagner, who didn’t rate Schumann and felt that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate. But that’s complete nonsense.

I think Schumann learned his craft in cahoots with Mendelssohn. They both lived in Leipzig, and Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony (No 1), among other works. Although Schumann is a different beast, there are ‘fingerprints’ of Mendelssohn in his orchestration.

> Listen to Schumann's 'Spring' Symphony on Apple Music

In the past, conductors like Mahler also decided Schumann wasn’t so good at orchestration, and they decided to retouch his writing. But I don’t feel it’s in the least necessary. Schumann’s orchestration is incredibly transparent, and revealing of his personality and his turbulence. For that you have to be incredibly alert to the mood changes. You hear beautiful melodies, but there’s a subterranean effort below the surface, there’s subversion.

I think it’s a question of the approach of an orchestra and the approach of a conductor. If they allow themselves to be influenced by the late 19th-century, opulent concept of Schumann, to my mind they’re missing the point. Schumann is one of the successors to Beethoven: he’s trying his utmost to make his case for abstract music on a symphonic canvas, to be the equivalent of poetry, to be the equivalent of the novel. I think he succeeds triumphantly.'

The Composer's Own Revisions

'By his own admission, Schumann was a lesser conductor [than Mendelssohn]. When he took his symphonies to Düsseldorf to conduct them himself in the 1850s, he tended to double-up instruments in the winds as a belt-and-braces approach. It means the second version of the D minor Symphony (No 4) is very imposing, but doesn’t have the transparency, the elegance or the fire of the original, the 1841 version.'

Standing to Play

'Without chairs the strings can stand closer together – they can hear each other and the sight-lines are better. They can play like soloists. Chamber orchestras have been standing to play for yonks – and it gives extra energy. With Schumann it’s important – his sound palette is so full of light and shade, tension, suffering and pain.

'His sound palette is so full of light and shade, tension, suffering and pain.'

Schumann is the par-excellence Romantic composer, and his musical language is elusive. It doesn’t obviously come from Beethoven, or Mozart or Haydn, it’s really unique. So the standing isn’t the main thing. The main thing is coming to terms with Schumann’s musical language, which is very tricky.'

Musical Language

'It’s very vocal. What I find hugely helpful when interpreting the Schumann symphonies with a modern orchestra is to get the orchestra to speak it. This abstract music needs to be spoken and delivered as if it is oratory, as rhetoric, as song.

The vowels need to be legato and smooth, the consonants need to be triggered like percussive edges. If the woodwind use that with their embouchure, and if the strings use it with their bowing articulation, you’re three-quarters of the way through in uncovering his musical language.'


Watch and listen to Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Schumann's Symphony No 3, streamed on our YouTube channel on Thursday 26 March 7.30pm GMT. Click here for more information and details on how to watch. Recorded live at the Barbican on Thursday 7 February 2019.

Gardiner's Schumann Cycle on LSO Live

Schumann Symphonies Nos 1 & 3
Schumann Symphonies Nos 1 & 3 [download]

Schumann Symphonies Nos 2 & 4
Schumann Symphonies Nos 2 & 4 [download]