Schumann’s review of Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony

Markéta Herzánová Vlková Studie 2/2023

Bez popisku

In July 1835, nearly five years after the premiere of Hector Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik published a lead article devoted to this piece. It was the first of six instalments of Robert Schumann’s thorough essay, which was apparently written in response to Fétis‘ negative review of this work and represented ‘the longest and one of the most impressive articles of [Schumann‘s] career’.[1]

In my text I will discuss this review and characterise some of its key issues, considering them in a broader context. After describing the overall structure of Schumann’s text, I will examine three main aspects of it: namely, how the author changes his viewpoints, which of the broader ideas of his time he reflects, and what arguments he uses to defend Berlioz’s piece. Since I attempt to write a ‘review of a review’, I will not merely focus on the ideas occurring in the text, but I will also observe the way of communicating them.

Schumann’s text is divided into several sections. The introductory part, signed ‘Florestan’, is an emotional, highly subjective text, full of metaphors, associations and references to other arts, and differs considerably from the rest of the essay. The succeeding text, written under Schumann’s real name, is more sober, and although it does not exclude descriptions of passions evoked by the piece, it connects them with deep analytical observation. This part is precisely structured and discusses different aspects of the work: namely form, techniques of composition (with subcategories such as harmony, melody, counterpoint, working out, style), idea and spirit. Not surprisingly, the examination of compositional techniques is the most comprehensive section, closely related to music itself, whereas the reflection of idea and spirit resembles rather a contemplation of general issues. The whole structure thus emerges in its symmetrical shape, where associative, rather indefinite outer sections surround the specific, scholarly and precise middle part.

Despite the subjectivity of the whole text, Schumann uses specific strategies to keep his distance. He changes perspectives, questions his previous statements and utilises self-irony. His stylization into Florestan, an embodiment of the passionate, artistic part of his personality,[2] is probably the most evident example. This playful technique enables him to employ diverse viewpoints, show the composition in its richness and intricacy, and disguise his claims at the same time, as they are bound to the context of his literary stylization.[3]

As Florestan, for instance, he lets his fantasy and passions prevail over the examined composition. Despite some specific mentions of Berlioz, a ‘British woman’ (his wife Harriet Smithson) or the ‘third movement’, which link this introductory part to the review’s main topic, the text appears to present a magnificent imaginary world, surrounding an artist with Nature, gods and artworks. When describing music, Schumann as Florestan avoids technical terms and prefers dream-like, pathetic metaphors: ‘The whole creation still trembles from heaven’s embrace, and weeps as from more than a thousand eyes [...].’ Florestan’s section reaches its peak in Sonnenberg’s poem, which depicts the encounter between an artist and a spirit of art almost as a romantic relationship, and thus underlines the mystery of the creative process.

When writing under his own name, on the contrary, Schumann comments on this metaphorical style and method with a bit of scepticism and presents an opposite approach, based on ‘thorough investigation of the specific techniques of composition’,[4] which leads into a systematic theoretical description of music. With respect to Florestan, Schumann argues that ‘this psychological mode of critical treatment [...] cannot do full justice’.[5] In addition, the principle of different ‘voices’ and mutually questioned arguments appears also within this part, when a proper analysis is followed by a critical self-reflection again, showing ‘how little enlightenment is to be gained about music from such a dismembering critique’.[6] A sense of uncertainty is constantly implied. Despite Schumann’s repeated attempts to grasp the musical ‘meaning’, each of his approaches gives the impression of being partial and insufficient, while the ‘correct’ way can only be surmised. Schumann’s consistent view of Berlioz’s work thus seems to lie somewhere behind the text, hinted at by a mosaic of all of its perspectives.

Although Schumann did not show much interest in contemporary aesthetics,[7] the variety of views and strategies which he presented in his review could be seen as a reflection of wider issues discussed at his time.[8] Most of them involved the meaning of music and the way of its verbal depiction. In the latter part of the 19th century, the disagreement about what to include into a musical ‘meaning’ and if music should contain external reference resulted in the dichotomy between pure ‘absolute’ music, whose meaning was sought in the musical structure, and programme music, which strove to describe some extra-musical images or ideas.[9]

With regard to this dichotomy, Schumann’s judgement of Berlioz’s programmatic symphony is slightly ambiguous. After exposing the extra-musical programme, labelled as the work’s ‘idea’, he refers to such detailed description as exaggerated, when ‘the titles standing at the head of the five movements would have sufficed on their own’.[10] He not only calls for respect for genius’ privacy and underlines the importance of a listener’s own fantasy, but he also warns of the effect of prescribed associations, which might be facilitating but restricting at the same time.[11] However, he admits that music may support the literary idea, which appears ‘clothed in vibrant living sound’.[12] As his consideration reveals, he does not deny that some extra-musical associations may serve as pivotal sources of inspiration, but he seems to value fantasy and imagination over detailed literal instructions.[13]

A related dilemma, which was outlined by Eduard Hanslick in 1854, occurred in the field of music criticism. To transform music in words, a critic faces a choice between ‘dry technical designations’ of musical structure and ‘poetic fiction’, based on metaphors.[14] This issue appears even more complex after considering the vagueness of musical ‘meaning’, as well as the fact that even many of the ‘dry’ and ‘technical’ musical terms are metaphorical.[15] In Schumann’s writing, both ways of describing music are used without a glimpse of contrast. Admittedly, Florestan’s section totally lacks musical terms, but in the main body, a fluent connection prevails; ‘a recitative, interrupted by the orchestra’, for instance, is described as ‘illuminated by the most fearful passion and [rising] to the high piercing Ab [..], at which point it seems to collapse in a swoon’,[16] and a passage of octaves ‘must strike us to the depths of our being’.[17] As we can see, Schumann employs poetic metaphors to depict music indirectly, through characterizing the emotional response it provokes in him. Despite the frequent use of the plural, suggesting the existence of some universal reactions to music, Schumann’s strategy seems to be in accordance with the subjectivity of his review.

Indeed, Schumann was not the first to use technical analysis together with emotional reflections when reviewing a piece of music. In 1810 E. T. A. Hoffmann published a ground-breaking review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which was somewhat similar in terms of both structure and ideas. Hoffmann considers Beethoven a genius who has to be judged according to exceptional criteria, and moreover, he strengthens the position of instrumental music, as it represents the only ‘independent’ and ‘purely romantic’ art.[18] Hoffmann’s poetic associations, evoked by instrumental music, are presented in the introductory meditation, which is then complemented by an elaborate analytical description. Schumann’s review, though more comprehensive and less concentrated, seems to follow this pattern.

Even though Schumann acknowledges some weaknesses in Berlioz’s work, he strives to demonstrate its geniality. He exposes diverse arguments to prevent the symphony from being misunderstood, whether by conservative crowds or by individuals (namely Fétis, whose negative judgement of the Fantastic Symphony provoked Schumann into writing this review).

When defending Berlioz, Schumann applies the romantic concept of genius to him, and thus excludes him from those who are bound by harmonic and formal rules. The ‘artist’, which is referred to in Florestan’s impassioned introduction, is far from a craftsman; he is rather pictured as an extraordinary individuality, ‘seized for the first time by the God of Love’.[19] This concept reflects a romantic attempt to portray the composer as a hero,[20] which would culminate later, particularly in connection with Wagner. Moreover, Berlioz’s geniality is mentioned even in the main body of the review, often supported with an argument of the logical structure of the piece: no matter how many ‘rough edges’ it has[21] or how little attention was paid to its details, all the elements are in their right place and every potential change would have spoiled the work:

May the time never come when such passages as these are sanctioned as beautiful, any more than the century in which hunchbacks and lunatics are held to be Apollos and Kants with respect to beauty and reason. With Berlioz, however, it is quite another matter. One has only to try adjusting things here and there, improving them a little – as is child’s play for anyone well versed in harmony! – to discover instead how lack-lustre and insipid the result![22]

When Schumann encourages the reader to judge new pieces with caution (as he puts it, ‘the stranger and more ingenious a thing outwardly appears, the more carefully ought we to judge it’[23]), his statements suggest the restricting aspect of one’s listening experience. He calls for abandoning the strict traditional expectations in relation to the work of genius. Therefore, it might be surprising that his defence of Berlioz’s formal structure is based on its similarity to a traditional pattern. However, these aspects can be seen as complementary, not contradictory: it seems probable that Schumann appreciated both innovative and conservative elements of Berlioz’s work, since he considered ‘the romantic [...] a bold progressive who operated within a tradition; his whole purpose was to enrich the tradition, not to supplant it’.[24] Concerning the defence itself, Schumann’s illustration of the first movement’s symmetrical organisation is convincing, but the similarities between the form of Berlioz’s symphony and the traditional formal pattern are outlined somewhat roughly and many details remain neglected. In an attempt to show the resemblance, Schumann’s analysis contains inaccuracies or even factual errors (‘largo’ is referred to as traditional ‘adagio’; the interchange between scherzo and adagio is ignored; the different number of movements is explained with the coherence of the last two movements).[25] That is to say, Berlioz’s work seems to be traditionally rooted when observed from Schumann’s distance, but it is still innovative (and consequently partly misunderstood by Schumann’s contemporaries) with regard to details.

The peculiar relationship between tradition and progress is evident even in Schumann’s frequent references to Ludwig van Beethoven. On one hand, Beethoven’s work represents the basis on which the progressive compositions are built; many romantic composers (including Schumann himself, incidentally)[26] failed in their attempt to deal with his inheritance.[27] On the other hand, he is seen as a rebel against tradition, an ‘iconoclast who sweeps away all artificial conventions providing for the free expression of subjective musical values. In Beethoven Schumann and his colleagues saw the beginning of a new era in music, namely their own.’[28] Therefore, it is not surprising that he figured in Schumann’s texts as an authority and his music provided criteria for judging the work of his Romantic successors.

Schumann’s review of Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony is a comprehensive and profound essay. Apart from the composition itself, it covers many other more or less related topics and questions concerning musical meaning, critical judgement, a relationship between craft and inspiration, or the way of writing about musical structure. To avoid extreme or one-sided view, the text contains specific literary devices (such as self-irony or change of perspective), and can be read as a valuable literary work, posing further questions rather than answers. If Friedrich Schlegel finds the work of Romantic criticism ‘superfluous unless it is itself a work of art […] independent of the work it criticizes’,[29] Schumann’s text is a perfect manifestation of this idea.


Beard, David and Kenneth Gloag, Musicology: the key concepts (London: Routledge, 2005)

Bonds, Mark Evan, After Beethoven: Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 1996)

Daverio, John and Eric Sams, ‘Schumann, Robert‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023]

Grey, Thomas, ‘Metaphorical Modes in Nineteenth-Century Music Criticism: Image, Narrative, and Idea‘, in Steven Paul Scher, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 93–117

Guck, Marion A., ‘Two Types of Metaphoric Transference‘, in Jenefer Robinson, ed., Music and Meaning (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 201–212

Herzog, Patricia, ‘Music Criticism‘, in Kelly, Michael, Encyclopedia of aesthetics I (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 471–474

Hoffmann, E. T. A., Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, reproduced in David Charlton, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s musical writings (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 234–251

Macdonald, Hugh‚ ‘Berlioz, Hector‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023]

Plantinga, Leon, Schumann as Critic (New York: Da Capo, 1976)

Scruton, Roger, ‘Absolute music‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023]

Scruton, Roger, ‘Programme music‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023]

Schumann, Robert, [Review of Berioz: Fantastic Symphony], reproduced in Ian Bent, ed., Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 166–194.


[1] Leon Plantinga, Schumann as Critic (New York: Da Capo, 1976), p. 239.

[2] John Daverio and Eric Sams, ‘Schumann, Robert‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023].

[3] John Daverio and Erich Sams refer to Schumann’s ‘multi-layered perspectival technique‘, see ibid. Schumann used this technique even in his musical compositions (Carnaval).

[4] Robert Schumann, [Review of Berioz: Fantastic Symphony], reproduced in Ian Bent, ed., Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 166–194 (p. 170)

[5] Ibid, p. 170.

[6] Ibid, p. 174.

[7] See Plantinga, pp. 112–113.

[8] If we admit the possibility of such a connection, we might partly explain it by the influence of E. T. A. Hoffmann, whose opinions were rooted in the idealist philosophy. See ibid, p. 114.

[9] Although both concepts were known earlier, the terms were introduced only in the 19th century. See Roger Scruton, ‘Absolute music‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023]; Roger Scruton, ‘Programme music‘, Grove Music Online <> [accessed 18 December 2023].

[10] Schumann, p. 192.

[11] See ibid, p. 192.

[12] See ibid, p. 192.

[13] The difference between these categories is suggested by Roger Scruton. When defining programme music, he mentions a necessary ‘aesthetic distinction between representation and expression‘ and connects the term ‘programme music‘ solely to the former. See Scruton, ‘Programme music‘.

[14] Paraphrased in Thomas Grey, ‘Metaphorical Modes in Nineteenth-Century Music Criticism: Image, Narrative, and Idea‘, in Steven Paul Scher, Music and Text: Critical Inquiries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 93–117 (p. 93).

[15] See Marion A. Guck, ‘Two Types of Metaphoric Transference‘, in Jenefer Robinson, ed., Music and Meaning (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 1997), 201–212.

[16] Schumann, p. 181.

[17] Schumann, p. 181.

[18] See E. T. A. Hoffmann, Review of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, reproduced in David Charlton, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 234–251 (p. 236).

[19] Schumann, p. 168.

[20] See David Beard and Kenneth Gloag, Musicology: the Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 71.

[21] Schumann, p. 175.

[22] Ibid, p. 180.

[23] Ibid, p. 174.

[24] Plantinga, p. 108.

[25] See Schumann, p. 172.

[26] See Mark Evan Bonds, After Beethoven: Imperatives of Originality in the Symphony (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 109–137.

[27] See Schumann, pp. 171–172.

[28] Plantinga, p. 95.

[29] Quoted in Patricia Herzog, ‘Music Criticism‘, in Kelly, Michael, Encyclopedia of aesthetics I (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 471–474 (p. 472).

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