Length: c. 38 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
Poor Robert Schumann. His father died when he was a teenager, his mother suffered from manic mood swings, and his sister committed suicide. He spent his whole life on the edge, paranoid about going over it – and perhaps in a self-fulfilling prophecy, he met his end in a straitjacket at age 46. But often out of mania and anguish comes great art, and Schumann’s psychological diesel fueled a prolific industry. As he entered his 30s in 1841, Schumann pumped out the beginnings of no less than four separate symphonies. In 1845 he tagged along with his wife Clara on her performance tour of Russia, then moved their growing family to Dresden. Not for the first time (and definitely not the last), he began to suffer mental strain, auditory hallucinations, vertigo, depression, and other symptoms now affiliated with bipolar disorder. Most frustrating was the ringing and cacophony in the composer’s ears, where “every noise turned into a musical sound.”
He began drinking mineral water from Bílina and gave up smoking, and gradually felt better. He also gave himself permission to compose in a more “professional” manner. Rather than waiting for swift, sudden visits from the muse (as he was used to doing), he would sit down and furrow the creative soil at a calmer pace. He sharpened his tools by diligently studying counterpoint, and specifically the music of Bach. In December 1845, in the stew of this suffering and self-determination, he began to sketch a new symphony in the bright key of C major, which would eventually be labeled his Second Symphony. Like Beethoven (the undisputed king of the form), Schumann was exerting dominance over his symptoms through symphony – willing triumph in the form of optimistic melody and resolution. “I would say that my resistant spirit had a visible influence on [the work] and it is through that that I sought to fight my condition,” he said. “The first movement is full of this combativeness, is very moody and rebellious in character.” He nods to Beethoven explicitly in the final movement, where one theme morphs into a resemblance of the song “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder” from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte cycle. “Take, then, these songs that I sang to you, beloved,” it begins – “sing them again in the evenings to the sweet sounds of the lute.” There are few more romantic ways to apologize to your wife for moping around the house.
Schumann finished the symphony in October 1846, and premiered it in Leipzig on November 5 under Mendelssohn’s baton. He tweaked and tightened it after that concert (admitting he was “always correcting the symphony”), and its esteem grew with each performance. In a classic four-movement narrative, Schumann vanquishes dark clouds with strings that alternately sculpt their optimistic theme through furious whittling and long, smooth slices. The first movement races toward the light with abandon, culminating in a joyous coda. That animated energy sprints headlong into the second, continuously brightened with plucky woodwinds. The happy dash only slows for serenity – never sorrow. Nobility and grace mark the adagio, and the final movement claims a swift and stouthearted victory.
— Tim Greiving is a film music journalist in Los Angeles. Find him at timgreiving.com.