Schumann’s Second Symphony in C Major

Schumann: Symphony no.2 in C major

I

https://open.spotify.com/track/15mnLRAGEOVJd4ZMPOM09S

Sketched in a matter of weeks in December 1845 and eventually published in 1847, this was actually the 3rd symphony which Robert Schumann had completed.

The work opens with a vaguely eerie sounding chorale that has the markings of a somewhat religious soundscape. Set against an uncertain, shifting base line, the soft drone of the brass instruments conjures up an image of ancient druids trudging up a mist shrouded hill on their way to a ceremony of some kind. Equally likely is that this opening music was intended to reflect the composer’s troubled state of mind at the time of inception.

Bach’s influence pervades this entire work; indeed, Schumann had immersed himself in a study of the old master’s work leading up to the creation of this symphony alongside an intensive analysis of counterpoint which is strongly reflected throughout the structure and creation of the composition.

This symphony is chuck full of ciphers, codes, quotations and references to other music. Written during a particularly tough stage of the composer’s battles with depression and poor health, the symphony carries a surprisingly uplifting tone throughout and reflects a common theme of that other musical behemoth Beethoven in its message of triumph over fate and pessimism.

Schumann’s friend Felix Mendelssohn, who was credited with resurrecting the music of JS Bach in Germany in 1830, was a fitting choice as the conductor who premiered this symphony on November 5th 1846.

A jaunty new theme enters at 3.27 and sets a new direction for the music. Almost instantly, there is more energy and flow to the music. Inspiration bursts forth like new flowers in spring.

Schumann continues to develop the theme and restates with vigour, the muscular and determinedly positive theme at 8.56. It’s as though he is forcibly banishing his depression away in the unfailingly positive, sunshine key of C major. The drive toward the close of this 1st movement is near relentless – no dissenting voices will be permitted! C major is repeatedly asserted with thrashed timpani and growling bass instruments. The journey from that mist shrouded paganist vision to decisive certainty and control feels complete.

II

https://open.spotify.com/track/13zgAGDA6DJHpyfegjbN2K

A skittish melody in the violins which scampers hesitantly over diminished chords quickly sets the tone for this marvellous little Scherzo. Repeated once before moving quickly into a counter melody, Schumann deploys some neat sounding orchestration when he engages the woodwinds in a playful call and response feature with the violins. The resultant tonal effect sounds just right.

Very shortly after these initial passages are established, Schumann whips the music up into a louder re-statement of the existing themes. The cleverness of these effects is very much enhanced by the carefully placed accents throughout the different musical voices, all of which are expertly interpreted by Daniel Barenboim in this particular recording.

Such is the importance of C major within this symphony, the music seems irresistibly drawn to that key and it appears at 1.27 with a sudden verve. Once that particular passage has come to a firm rest (again with a decisive C major conclusion,) the first of the 2 trios appears.

Again, a debt is owed to Bach given the distinctly Baroque sound of the music. Like a wispy cloud drifting away, the trio melts away without warning and we are back into the opening theme once again.

When the 2nd trio appears at 4.26, it is introduced in a very subtle way which offers no clues as to its real character. When the oboe duet begins at 4.43, we are reminded once again of the influence which Bach held on Schumann’s mind at this time.

The 2nd trio repeats itself, before that persistent opening theme knocks on the door once again. In order to close the movement with a suitable bang, Schumann modifies slightly the direction of the opening theme, culminating in a whirlwind of kaleidoscopic colour ensuring quite fittingly that the final blow is delivered once again in C major.

III

https://open.spotify.com/track/6Obl54xJAPQ3PM8lXdn3WP

When we listen to Schumann’s slow movements, particularly this Adagio Espressivo, we tend to think of his relationship with his wife Clara and certainly, we need look no further for the subject of such romantic expression. Written in the key of C minor, this slow movement is in Sonata form and has the character of an Elegy.

After the deep pathos and long-breathed musical lines of the first section, a bleak fugal episode appears at 4.48. Some musicologists have heard this theme as a depiction of the isolation and despair the composer felt during his illness. Whilst it is in some respects the archetypal Romantic era slow movement, the prevailing spirit of Bach is very much present within these pages. At the same time, this music was very forward looking and would go onto influence great composers of the future, such as Grieg, Bruckner and Elgar.

IV

https://open.spotify.com/track/2kESfC8Pcxw8xq3p7gUm5g

An explosive, powerful impetus opens the finale with that most familiar of Schumann’s rhythmical styles – the dotted variety.

The music is boisterous in its sheer bouncing energy and Schumann appears determined to crush all the pessimism that went before. If you listen carefully, you can hear once again the opening theme from the Adagio around 3 minutes in, albeit slightly modified to fit the agitated new mood of this final movement.

After a brief silence, the oboe introduces a new theme at 3.49. This has been cited as a song of thanks to Clara Schumann, to whom he felt deep and everlasting gratitude for supporting him through the best and worst of times. We can hear another recap from a previous movement – this time from the 2nd trio of the Scherzo. A frenzied climax leads to a fermata (a prolonged pause) on the dominant chord at 5.21.

What follows is a return to the mood of tenderness and in a truly inspirational stroke of genius, by carefully re-arranging a few notes from the previous Bach inspired theme, Schumann delivers a quotation from perhaps his greatest musical hero, Beethoven. The tune in question, which appears at 5.27 is from that master’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved.)

From here, Schumann brilliantly works his way back through the symphony, bringing together previous motifs, reworking earlier melodies – there is time for another direct quotation, this time from one of the composer’s own songs Widmung (Dedication) which was presented to Clara on their wedding day.

The result is a gradual swelling of optimism, confidence and triumph over adversity, calling upon the spirit of not only the aforementioned previous maestros, but importantly summoning up from within himself the courage to win against the odds.

The closing bars present a deafening declaration of C major indefatigability – the rolling timpani shouting with chest bursting pride of their untiring triumph!