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Composed: 1841, 1851

Length: c. 30 minutes

About this Piece

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 29, 1929, Bruno Walter conducting

The compositional arc in Robert Schumann’s life was clearly defined and well-ordered. As an aspiring pianist his first works were understandably pieces – wonderfully imaginative, romantic pieces – for the piano. (Poor Robert, his hope for becoming a great keyboard artist was ignominiously self-aborted: in an effort to strengthen his fourth fingers through the use of a mechanical contraption of his own design, he damaged his hands irreparably.) The depression into which he fell as the result of what he considered a devastating blow to his career was prolonged and painful.

But the cloud was lifted in 1840 when, after much parental opposition, he married Clara Wieck, the gifted pianist daughter of his, and her, piano teacher, Frederick Wieck. (In fairness to him, Herr Wieck, trying to protect his Clara, was well aware of Robert’s bouts of drunkenness and of his temperamental instability.) The marriage year became the year of song – some 120 beauties for voice and piano came from his pen.

Then he decided to flex his orchestral muscle and he produced a symphony in B-flat that he named “Spring,” a splendid first symphony with one of the happiest final movements imaginable. Flushed with the major success the work made in its premiere, Schumann almost immediately produced a second symphony, this one in D minor. Unfortunately, lightning did not strike twice and, as the composer wrote to a friend, “The Second Symphony did not have the same great acclaim as the First. I know it stands in no way behind the First, and sooner or later it will make it on its own.”

Because of Schumann’s procrastination in reworking the composition, however, the Second Symphony had to wait until much later – ten years later, in fact – to reach completion, and by then it came to be numbered four. In his final revision of this dramatic work, which is so strikingly the other side of the emotional coin of  its near-twin, the “Spring” Symphony, Schumann changed the orchestration in many places (i.e., made it heavier through doublings) and, importantly, put into effect his original intention of linking the traditional four movements, thus achieving a stronger unity than was present in the original.

Recycling a composition’s basic materials through transformations was not a new concept; Schubert had shown the way in his “Wanderer” Fantasy for piano in 1822, and Berlioz worked his wonders with his idée fixe in the Symphonie fantastique in 1829. Later, Liszt adopted the method with unbridled enthusiasm, and this process of thematic transformation set the pace for the symphonic poems of the later  19th century. The transformation process begins early in Schumann’s D-minor Symphony, as the first five notes of the seri- ously stern introduction are utilized in the main theme of the movement proper, a theme whose restless energy is so typical of the composer’s brand of Romanticism, and then used throughout the symphony in various rhythmic and melodic guises.

In the course of the fantasia-like first movement, another idea is introduced that also plays an important role in subsequent movements: three emphatic chords followed by a forceful five-note motif. We find them at the beginning of the Scherzo, where they are combined with a vital main theme, and at the opening of the rousing finale, to which the first movement’s main theme is added as a figure in the bass. Before the Scherzo, Schumann devises a piquant slow movement, a Romanze that presents a new minor-key melody in oboes and cellos, alternating it with the pensive melodyof the first movement’s introduction, stretching it here as an interlude decorated by an ineffably tender violin solo.

The transition to the final movement, so similar to the one that leads into the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is a clear representation of Schumann’s dual person- alities first presented as literary figures in his publication Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music): Eusebius, the epitome of poetic reticence, and Florestan, with his portentous posturings and bravura flights. Clearly, Florestan prevails in a movement that develops, again like Beethoven’s Fifth (but without that model’s monumental scope), into a major-key affirmation that joyously rejects the Symphony’s D-minor urgencies. — Orrin Howard