Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C, op. 61

performed by the Cleveland Symphony under George Szell

It is strange that just before I really got around to listening to this piece, I was reading some articles about Schenkerian analysis and the idea of homotonality, which it seems is a concept more associated with the previously-discussed Haydn, but we are now going to be addressing a symphony far more modern (a century and a half, give or take) that is in C from beginning to end, save a movement in Cm.
Schumann’s symphony no. 2 was not his second symphony to be written. He had already begun work on (or even come close to completing?) his D minor symphony which later became his fourth symphony. The piece was sketched out quite quickly, in a matter of only a few weeks in December of 1845, but due to some health problems and a ringing in his ears, he didn’t finish the orchestration until the following October and the piece was finally published in 1847. It was first performed under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig in November of 1846, just less than a year after it was first written.
In some ways, the piece is quite traditional, but in others it’s somewhat strange. Listening to the piece at first ‘glance,’ it sounds typically Romantic in nature; Beethoven comes to mind, as perhaps an inspiration, not an equal. There are some presentations of the B-A-C-H motif and in the finale there are two themes of Beethoven as inspiration. It is in the typical four-movement form, but within this form, there are some oddities. The official premiere wasn’t welcomed with any overwhelming praise, but it was performed again a few days later and seemed to get a better response. It was respected during its time, but Wikipedia makes reference to it rather falling out of the spotlight later on because of some of its quirks. Let’s talk about it.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this piece, I want to share an article from Tom Service in The Guardian where he sings the praises of this piece. I’d come across it at an important moment in my listening to this symphony, which I’ll talk about below, but the most striking, important thing it brought out at the beginning was that the time of this symphony was one when Beethoven practically had a monopoly on the symphony. People were still awing at The Choral and composers were
still living in its shadow. It is, indeed, a tough act to follow, but follow my thoughts about the piece and we’ll talk about the article more at the bottom.
The piece opens with a brass chorale. Schumann had just finished writing his Six Organ Fugues on B-A-C-H, op. 60, and they may perhaps have been on his mind with this opening. The brass fall farther and farther to the background as strings swell with a beautiful long line of expression that leads us right into the. Woodwinds join strings in and there’s some more motion. By this time, the brass are kind of faded memory, and there’s an accented entry to what can only be the first theme of the movement. Things get stormier and more lively, in what feels like a far accelerated version of the opening material.
The punctuated chords that follow sound almost Beethovenesque, and after this sweet and slightly somber opening, the movement blossoms into greater and greater optimism and joy. But as mentioned in Service’s article, there’s a kind of intangible… uncertainty about the piece. It ‘undermines’ itself rhythmically and harmonically so everything seems kind of uncertain. I had originally felt this as a sort of unidentified confusion, not knowing quite what was happening or what to focus on, but it’s really a wonderful movement once it gets going. The literature says (I just wanted to say that; it’s Wikipedia) that the piece is kind of a Beethovenesque portrayal of triumph over fate. As mentioned at the outset, Schumann had some health problems (as he did throughout his life, it seems), so one might expect this to be a gloomy, dismal piece, but it isn’t. The opening of the first movement, even, while perhaps pensive, isn’t dark, and from there it’s quite triumphant. The drama builds toward the end of the movement and it ends with repeated final notes.
The second movement is the scherzo. It wasn’t uncommon by this time (or at this time) to give the scherzo second place and put the slow(er) movement third. In contrast with many other scherzi (like those that would come after it), this one isn’t a dark, gloomy brooding thing, but quite playful and crisp. It’s the shortest of the four movements in the symphony, and makes enjoyable use of the sections of the orchestra. The rhythms in this movement are also quite strong in some places, even for a scherzo. The trio is lighter and makes wonderful use of the woodwinds. There’s a second trio with the B-A-C-H motif again before our playful but strong theme returns for a final, exciting end. It’s an extremely confident movement.
The adagio espressivo is, in contrast, much quieter. This is our C minor section, and it is the most outwardly somber, elegiac movement of the piece, the one where we might feel that the composer is being more honest or open with his listeners, but more a somberness of acceptance or acknowledgement than of sorrow, it seems. It’s truly a wonderful movement, in sonata form. Some of the instrumental solos (or just more exposed lines) feel like they’re paying their respects. The oboe has a delightful melody in this movement over strings. This movement is quiet and peaceful and warm.
The final movement is in a more loosely-organized sonata structure. It opens with a triumphant, confident theme that awakens the listener from the cozier, quieter mood of the previous movement. It’s celebratory, even, and I would say it’s the most unambiguously positive material of the whole symphony. The two main themes of this movement are both wonderfully expressive, one slightly bouncier than the other, but much of it not without relation to the serene but not sad third movement. Tom Service says in his article that Schumann claims to have been feeling better by the time he got around to the finale, and it’s a wonderful, confident end to a symphony that, at first, seemed in danger of faltering, apparently intentionally so.
Yes, that article. I must say, at the first handful of listens to this piece, I didn’t like it, and didn’t really want to. It felt… unsubstantial. It felt good, not great, it felt nice, but not moving. But then I started paying attention, and not comparing or expecting to see things that aren’t there. This isn’t Beethoven, nor is it Brahms (obviously); it’s Schumann, and while he isn’t hailed as nearly as great a symphonist as either of the aforementioned, he managed to construct a cohesive piece of music with his own voice, one that paid homage to tradition but also did things in its own way.
What really started getting me to pay attention to this piece, then, was that article linked above. Service sung its praises, and it got me to thinking of this piece as not just a symphony from the guy whose piano music I don’t care for but haven’t really gotten to know, but as an individual, expressive, important work, if not for the musical world in general, at least (very much) for the composer. It doesn’t have a reputation in ‘the industry’ that Beethoven’s third (or fifth or sixth or seventh or ninth) or Mahler’s second or fifth or whatever else do; it isn’t hailed as a landmark, influential turning point in the Romantic literature, that I know of, but in its own quite wonderful way, is a solid, thoroughly enjoyable symphony with something new at every turn.
It may not be a piece I’m moved to continue to listen to regularly, but it really is a delight, especially against the backdrop of what was going on in the composer’s life, and the allusions to it all that are sort of hidden in plain sight.
We did some of Schumann’s symphonies (I don’t even remember now which ones) a while back, but justice was not done to them, so… his second gets good marks. I am a convert.
See you next week for yet more from the German-speaking Romantic era.


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