Learn more about Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish” from CPO Principal Trombone James Scott. Hear this piece, along with Chaminade’s Flute Concerto and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon at the Orchestra’s February 13 & 14 Mozart and Schumann performances.

The life of a trombonist in an orchestra has been described as long stretches of boredom punctuated with short moments of terror – an apt description for the “Rhenish”, where we don’t play a note in the first three movements, and then enter with a soft, high chorale in the fourth movement (of five). I remember my teacher, Edward Herman, Jr. describing his audition for the New York Philharmonic and for conductor Dimitri Mitropoulis. The audition had eliminated the other candidates and was now between him and another prominent player of that time. Mitropoulis had them each play the chorale, one after the other, until the other player finally missed the high note – the job went to Mr. Herman.

On February 13th and 14th, the CPO will be performing Robert Schumann’s Third Symphony, also known as the “Rhenish” (or “Rhineland”) Symphony, since it was inspired by Schumann’s move to that area of Germany. The Schumann Symphonies are a bit of a homecoming for many of the CPO musicians, since they were central pieces in the repertoire of two former Music Directors. Mario Bernardi recorded all of the symphonies with the CPO for the CBC SM5000 series, and took us on tour to the US, Ontario and Quebec with the 2nd Symphony, and to rural Alberta and Saskatchewan with the 3rd. Hans Graf featured the 3rd Symphony on our European tour. I have great memories of these performances, particularly of our performance of the Rhenish in the Musikverein in Vienna. I thought I’d write a bit about this work from a trombonist’s perspective.

The type of scoring that leaves the trombones out of the mix until important moments of solemnity is quite common in symphonic works, and can be traced back to the earliest appearances of the instrument in the symphonies of Beethoven. While trombones date back to the Renaissance, they were primarily instruments of the church – this fact is always surprising to people that actually know a trombonist! In the Rhenish symphony, the chorale-like 4th movement was inspired by a visit to the Cathedral in Cologne for a solemn ceremony where an Archbishop was elevated to the office of Cardinal of the Church. The sound of trombones playing a hymn-like tune in harmony would have been a familiar reminder of church services for the audiences of Schumann’s time. It’s worth noting that while the early English translations of the Bible used “trumpet” as the substitute for the Ram’s horn that, for instance, blew down the walls of Jericho, Martin Luther’s German translation used the word “posaune” (which translates to “trombone” in English).

The final movement of the symphony also has some nice moments for the trombones, joining the other brass in music that again sounds hymn-like. This time, the mood is different – louder and more joyful in nature. This music brings this great symphony to a  close, leaving the audience with uplifting sounds to end the performance.

Schumann’s use of the trombone in his music helped take the best of the traditions of its church history and expand them to provide support to a symphony orchestra. Along with Schubert and Brahms, he realized that the organ-like quality of trombones in harmony was a great tool for scoring a symphony – a sound still being used by today’s composers. I hope that everyone reading this will come to this concert, and will enjoy the symphony and our small but significant role in it.