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Schumann’s Second Symphony began to take shape at the end of 1845, shortly after his recovery from a nervous breakdown. His comment then to Felix Mendelssohn, “drums and trumpets have been sounding in my mind for some time now,” might strike us as a wry reflection on his disturbed mental condition, replete with aural fantasies, of the year preceding. Following the breakdown, Robert and Clara left Leipzig where, despite the Schumanns’ participation in the city’s social and artistic life, Robert “could find no peace,” as he wrote to a friend, and where he taught with little pleasure or aptitude at the Conservatory. On his doctor’s advice, they moved to Dresden, with its drier, generally more salubrious climate, but decidedly more conservative that Leipzig in its artistic tastes. There he recovered sufficiently to resume composing, although amid a musical society that regarded his work as dangerously modern. (Music, in fact, was not nearly so highly prized in Dresden as literature and the visual arts.) During a visit with Clara to Leipzig some months after the move, Robert wrote to his friend, the composer Ferdinand Hiller: “The life and people do cheer us up considerably. Eventually, we think we will settle in Leipzig again.” It didn’t happen. Nor, as things turned out, did it matter where he lived. Schumann’s demons had no geographical locus.
The sketch for the C-major Symphony took less than a week’s effort, but the score’s completion, delayed by bouts of failing health and, worse, flagging self-confidence, took nearly a year. With Mendelssohn’s encouragement, the task was finally completed and Mendelssohn led the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on November 5, 1846. The remarkably cooperative Mendelssohn agreed to a second performance two weeks later. For this occasion, Schumann made substantial changes in the orchestration, including what turned out to be a magnificent inspiration: the addition of the trombones of the present edition. The “drums and trumpets” referred to earlier serve as the motto-fanfare (in C) that opens the Symphony and reappears near the end of this, the composer’s grandest orchestral conception. A score begun in confidence with a heroic opening movement (Schumann, unaccountably, called it “moody and refractory”) followed by a whiplash Scherzo, continues with a yearning, ecstatic Adagio – to many observers the quintessential Romantic slow movement – and a triumphant finale, “in which,” Schumann wrote, “I am myself again,” referring to the fact that he had suffered another nervous seizure and a period of creative inertia after completing the Adagio. He was indeed confident and masterful for a time – less than a year – thereafter, before the darkness would again close in around him.
After serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Opera, followed by a long-term relationship with the Los Angeles Times as a critic/columnist, Herbert Glass has for the past decade-plus been English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.