Symphony No 2
Robert Schumann’s life was marked by alternating periods of depression and exhilaration. His marriage to Clara Weick in 1840 ushered in a period of empowerment and optimism, and this energy found outlets both in literary and musical composition. Only twenty-four months later, after a tour of Russia, the composer plunged into one of his massive, cyclical depressions. At this time, he wrote a letter to Mendelssohn describing his inner plight, “I lose every melody as soon as I conceive it; my mental ear is overstrained. Everything exhausts me.” In another letter he continued, “any sort of disturbance of the simple order of my life throws me off balance and into a nervous irritable state….Wherever there is fun and enjoyment I must keep out of the way. The only thing to be done is hope—and so I will.”
Moving to the quiet town of Dresden in 1845 was a decision made to accommodate his illness and slow down the pace of life. In that year he began work on his third symphony, identified as Number Two because of publication order. Between December 12–18 he quickly sketched the general outline. “Trumpets and drums have been sounding in my mind for quite a while now; I have no idea what will come of it,” he recorded. Eventually those trumpets and drums formed a striking motto, which pervades the entire work. Filling in the parts took longer as he bounced from exuberance to exhaustion. The score was completed in October 1846, and Schumann noted that with the full symphony in hand he “felt better,” had regained composure, yet he still acknowledged that the work was a “souvenir of a dark period.” Describing the musical setting, Schumann commented, ”It appears more or less clad in armor. It is music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow…The first movement is full of my struggle and in its character it is capricious and refractory….It is very peevish and perverse in character….Sometimes I fear my semi-invalid state can be divined from the music.” His Second Symphony premiered on November 5, 1846 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Mendelssohn’s baton.
The four movement work is highly integrated with all movements sharing the key of C major, and also sharing motifs and themes. (For example, the opening brass motto emerges again in the second and fourth movements.) The symphony opens with a slow introduction, featuring the trumpet motto theme, accompanied with a sub-text of creeping strings providing a sinuous background. A sudden outburst from the violins provides the statement of the jagged, rugged first theme. A second subject, relaxed and resigned, concludes the exposition. Schumann’s development continues the emotional storm, and there is no repose. A long pedal point in the bass brings a return to the strong first theme and recapitulation. The coda re-sounds the distinctive brass motto before conclusion.
A succeeding scherzo is cast in five parts, including two trio sections. Tight energy and intense passage work in brilliant 16th notes create a busy scene. Sprightly tunes bounce from the orchestra in rapid succession. Trio segments curtail the action momentarily, but overall hyper-activity prevails. The movement ends with a recall of the motto theme.
Rest finally comes in the exquisite third movement, structured around a stunning theme introduced by violins. Later, this vintage melody is shared by the oboe and swells to a surging climax against poignant trills from the strings. A small episode for strings, horn and trumpet injects a reflective mood before the opening melody is repeated. After writing this movement, Schumann needed rest and he put the symphony temporarily aside.
The composer’s strength returns in an aggressive fourth movement. “In the finale, I first began to feel like myself again,” Schumann explained. A rapid scale passage leads to a brazen principal subject. The second theme (related to the memorable adagio) enters in a rich combination of violas, celli, clarinet, and bassoon, and there is elaborate interplay between the two main ideas. Steadily, the music moves forward to a confident mood. A lyrical subsidiary theme is also included. Clearly, the composer was feeling better, and he affirmed his health and stabilization in the optimism of this movement. Eventually, the movement recalls the motto theme of the opening, sounding it softly and then allowing expansion in an exultant conclusion. Sadly, this affirmation of life was not to remain. Schumann’s recovery was transitory, and in only a few years, the madness overtook him for the last time. After several attempted suicides, he entered an asylum in 1853, remaining there until his death.
© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.