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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 5, 1939, Otto Klemperer conducting
Schumann approached musical forms by diving into them, often with single-minded concentration for an extended time. Thus he had a “year of the song” in 1840, in which he created a significant addition to the German lied repertoire by composing about 170 of them in a Schubertian frenzy, and a “year of the symphony” in 1841, in which he started at least four symphonies, with mixed results. Schumann had a lot to learn about the orchestra – he had to rewrite the opening of his first symphony because the trumpet parts included notes that were not on the instrument – and was still working out his ideas of what a symphony should be in the post-Beethoven age. Schumann was not alone in wondering where the symphony’s future lay. Many composers were similarly unsure of what a symphony ought to be. The third quarter of the 19th century (the decades right after Schumann’s and Mendelssohn’s early deaths) saw a sharp decline in the number of published symphonies, and not many of those are well known now. Much has been made of Brahms’ long struggle with his first symphony during this very time, but his symphonic crisis was typical for the time.
Schumann was so dissatisfied with his second attempt at a symphony that he put it aside for a decade. The revised version became known as his Fourth Symphony. Over the same decade or so he would rework the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, sometimes flirting with the idea that it was a symphony. Another 1841 symphony, in C minor, was never finished.
The symphony known as Schumann’s Second came four years later, after much had changed in Schumann’s life and art. He spent the fall 1843 semester as composition professor in Mendelssohn’s newly-founded Leipzig Conservatory, where he taught little and learned he had no teaching skills; he then followed his star pianist wife Clara on her tour of Russia, had a breakdown, and moved to Dresden. He spent much of 1845 studying conterpoint in general and Bach in particular. His Op. 60 Six Fugues on BACH (in German musical parlance, B-A-C-H stands for B-flat–A–C–B-natural) grew from those studies.
Schumann showed classic symptoms of bipolar mood disorder, and did most of his composing in rapidfire bursts in his manic phases. But he was in a depressed state in late 1845 when he sketched his C-major Symphony, and other problems, including auditory hallucinations and vertigo, kept him from working through much of 1846. The Schumanns’ fourth child, born in February, suffered from a birth defect and would die the following year. Not surprisingly, Clara’s letters from 1845 show that she was on the verge of despair, but she pulled both of them through, as she did so often during 13 years of marriage in which she bore eight children and held the household together. Robert finally finished the Symphony in October 1846, and Mendelssohn led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in its premiere a month later.
The Symphony, unlike much of Schumann’s symphonic music (his “Spring” and “Rhenish” Symphonies, for example), refers to nothing extra-musical, but it does show the currents running through Schumann’s artistic and personal consciousness when he wrote it, and may finish with an intimate message. The fanfare figures that the trumpets, horn, and first trombone intone against the flowing figures in the strings in the opening measures are reminiscent of the way Bach presents hymn tunes in his chorale preludes, but can it be a coincidence that that their first four notes are the same four notes that begin Haydn’s “London” Symphony (the last symphony by the father of the symphony)? The fanfare/chorale/Haydn figure is a motto of sorts, reappearing in the finale, and at the end of a first movement that is muscular and dramatic, Schumann at his most Beethovenian.
The Scherzo, on the other hand, is more like Mendelssohn on steroids. In its main section, the first violin part scampers through running passages that present enough technical problems that violinists today are often asked to play it at auditions (a quick web search will turn up a video of LA Phil First Associate Concertmaster Nathan Cole giving tips to aspiring fiddlers about auditioning with it). The Scherzo has two middle sections, the second of which presents a contrast in mood with a serene tune which, probably not coincidentally, has the B-A-C-H sequence embedded in it.
It may also not be coincidence that the main theme of the slow movement strongly resembles the slow movement of the trio sonata from Bach’s Musical Offering. It dominates the movement, even superimposing itself over an apparently unrelated fugal section in the middle of the movement. Schumann’s skill as an orchestrator is sometimes belittled (occasionally with cause), but in this movement he uses orchestral color masterfully to create an other-wordly experience.
The bounding, triumphant Finale is overtly heroic, but it contains a deeply personal message. One of the themes undergoes a minor transformation and becomes a clear reference to the final song of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte cycle, “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder,” which begins, “Take, then, these songs that I sang to you, beloved; sing them again in the evenings to the sweet sounds of the lute.” There can scarcely be a doubt about who would be offered the “songs” in such intimate terms, and indeed, some listeners hear a reference in this movement to Schumann’s song “Widmung” (“Dedication”), written as a wedding present to Clara. The Symphony was a major artistic step for Schumann and, he must have thought, a significant step in the evolution of the symphony, but in his own household it was a monumental valentine to his wife. She deserved it.
- Howard Posner