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Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61

About the Work

Robert Schumann
Quick Look Composer: Robert Schumann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Augusta Read Thomas Jun. 9 - 11, 2011
© Thomas May

Schumann:  Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61

 

Although Schumann tried and abandoned several early attempts at writing a symphony, soon after he married Clara Wieck in 1840, he at last found his way into the genre. Clara, after all, encouraged her husband to expand his ambitions beyond the confines of the keyboard. An inspired Schumann took just four days to sketch out his First Symphony (subtitled “Spring”) early in 1841. He also wrote a symphony in D minor that same year but held it back from publication, substantially revising the score a decade later (hence its numbering as the Symphony No. 4).

 

The psychological mood that accompanied the creation of Schumann’s Second Symphony, however, was in stark contrast to the happy confidence he had enjoyed during the his first years of marriage. The year 1844 had brought the worst yet in a series of nervous breakdowns that had periodically plagued the composer for years. The Second Symphony was created as part of a process of healing for Schumann when—again in a fever of inspiration—he sketched out his essential vision of the work in December 1845.

 

Actual orchestration, however, extended through much of 1846; in November of that year Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere, which was not well received. One of his most challenging scores, the richly expressive Second enjoys an especially favored status among Schumann connoisseurs. To his publisher the composer later confessed that he feared that the “semi-invalid” state in which he composed the music might be all-too-apparent: “I began to feel more myself when I wrote the last movement, and was assuredly better when I finished the whole work. Still, it reminds me of dark days.”

 

Indeed, a sense of epic striving pervades the Second Symphony. The long introduction to the first movement signals the expansive proportions to come. For all the score’s allusions to Beethoven’s “heroic” symphonies, however, Schubert’s “Great” Symphony (a work set in the same home key of C major) also provided significant inspiration. As it happens, Schumann himself had been instrumental in reclaiming Schubert’s forgotten score from oblivion, arranging for Mendelssohn to conduct the posthumous premiere in Leipzig in 1839. Just a few weeks before embarking on the Second Symphony, Schumann had been once again deeply impressed by a fresh encounter with the Schubert—a work he famously praised for its “heavenly length.” Yet another tutelary spirit that permeates the Second is that of J.S. Bach. During the period of his breakdown, Schumann had found that his close study of Bachian counterpoint helped him regain composure.

 

The symphony begins with a sustained, slow introduction in which an austere idea—an ultra-simple fanfare—is pronounced by the brass, though darkly shrouded by a fog of meandering strings. This fanfare will serve as a unifying core motif in the subsequent movements. The first movement proper gains tremendous momentum from Schumann’s exploitation of a pronounced dotted-rhythm idea, which becomes the engine for a long and eventful development. Another kind of energy pervades the ensuing Scherzo, with its skittishly fleeting patterns in duple time rather than the conventional triple meter. The movement contains two separate trios (a Beethovenian touch), the second of which encodes a motif that spells out the name of Bach in its German musical “transliteration” (B-flat-A-C-B). There is also a hint of Bach in the melodic contours of the C-minor Adagio, arguably the single most beautiful slow movement in Schumann’s cycle of four symphonies. It evokes a romantically filtered memory of baroque pathos, and Schumann incorporates a fugal episode before recapitulating the Adagio’s principal melody.

 

Yet the composer’s reverence for his predecessors—so apparent in the chain of influences on this score—goes hand in hand with a bracingly original approach to the symphonic genre. This originality is above all apparent in the remarkable architecture of the finale as well as in its transformation of thematic ideas. The overall character recalls the exuberant energy of the first movement; once again, prominent dotted rhythms impart a sense of momentum excitedly pressing forward. Schumann also works in a speeded-up version of the Adagio melody as a second theme, continuing a cyclic recall of material from earlier in the symphony.

 

Yet Schumann adds a wholly unexpected gesture to this process of integration. Before the movement reaches its midpoint comes a startling change as the musical argument is revealed to carry the possibility for yet another metamorphosis, this time with the entrée of a haunting new strain (first heard on oboe). The melody quotes Beethoven and, in turn, Schumann’s own Piano Fantasy (where he similarly made use of this quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle To the Distant Beloved as a coded message to Clara). The new, unexpected melody is nevertheless readily assimilated to its new symphonic context and is woven ever more prominently into the proceedings. After a glorious contrapuntal wedding of the finale’s themes in the coda, Schumann brings his opening fanfare motto to the fore—now no longer doubtful and hesitant—to round out the symphony in a spirit of jubilation and of confidence restored.