Spring Symphonies: 34/60 Schumann: Symphony No 2

Schumann's symphonies are out of order in the recognised numbering, their dates of composition are as follows:-

WoO 29, Symphony in G minor ("Zwickau") (1832-33) (incomplete)
Op. 38, Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Spring (1841)
Op. 120, Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841; revised in 1851)
Op. 61, Symphony No. 2 in C (1845–46)
Op. 97, Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Rhenish (1850)

And with the relegation of No 4, No 2 becomes a more mature work. As ever with discussion of Schumann, his domestic circumstances and health are an important backdrop to his musical work.  I don't want to dwell on this too much here but focus on the character of this amazing piece - which I have loved for many years.  If the slow march in the Rhenish is one pinnacle of his art then the feverish nature of some of the music here is another - whether related to his ill-health or not.

Though the key is C Schumann's use of material is outstanding in propelling predominantly the ideas of Bach and Beethoven into a new age of Romanticism.  The business of change needs many types  - if Mendelssohn was the early Romantic period's guardian of the past, and Berlioz the eccentric original creative genius, then Schumann was the clever ingenious pusher of boundaries, mixer of styles and leader of change - not just in his music but also his writing and support for new artists (not least Brahms).  

For me one of the most attractive things about this symphony is that although some of it's most adventurous and difficult passages might be put down to Schumann's decaying mental health, they might also just be the product of someone trying to do something new with something old.  A case in point is the slow introduction of the first movement.  It maybe inspired by a Bach Chorale Prelude - but the instrumental voicing is all Schumann and the progress may be stately as Bach would have it, but it’s not austere it fair glows.  The abrupt move to the allegro brings us right into Schumann’s sound world.  I think it’s worth noting that it’s only in the last 20 years that we have really been able to hear the intricacies of this music properly.  The deeper we get into it the richer Schumann’s imagination seems.

All of the those complaints from conductors and orchestras and no doubt recording engineers, that Schumann’s orchestral writing is all to dense and busy now seem a bit redundant as orchestras big and small seem to find ways of coping with his many voices and their interplay.  This allegro fizzes with energy.  Are those insistent driving rhythms the ravings of a deranged mind - well no I don’t think so.  But I do think they speak to us in a way that emphasises the ambition of Schumann’s thinking.  We might think of the same technique of setting our basic building blocks in an introduction that are then used in a high powered first movement as a construct Brahms used in his First Symphony.  But Schumann did it first and , to my ear, with more creativity, finer understanding of orchestration than we have given him credit for and when presented well in a way that will knock your socks off. 

And the brittle and intense rhythm of the Scherzo is often remarked upon - but without much reference to the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony which is just deemed very hard and not unplayable. So I think Schumann sometimes get a rough press.  Poor Schumann.
The first trio is a stark relief and bubbles away to a gentle repose.  The second repeat allows us more time to get our heads round the beast - usually with no much more insight. The second trio is full of longing and echoes some of the material and methods of the introduction. Nobility is the watchword here.

The third movement is an adagio of great beauty and pathos.  On it’s day it can be the most wonderful expression of the early Romantic ideals across all genres.  It is naturalistic - echoing back to a forest landscape with horn calls and then on low strings to a deeply ardent utterence.  I don’t think anyone listening to this would call Schumann’s mental health into question.  I find very moving.  There’s a tinge of loneliness about it with exposed woodwind lines against heaving strings.

It’s in the finale - marked Allegro motto vivace - we find all these strings brought together and an almost impossible ask to conductor and orchestra.  The string lines are long sinuous and very fast.  The first eruption is joyous.  There’s a constant pressing of four notes against three in the rhythms and the handing over of this job to the horns is something of a textural masterstroke.  The music bubbles like Mendelssohn for a time and beams with sunlight in it’s quiet repose.  The unwary listener might assume this is like some rest for the poor composer’s feverish mind, but with start the music starts up again wrecking that dream for our besieged composer.  There is some darkness in here for me - there is some poignancy against the bright landscape being drawn. 

In the last lap the music lifts itself to euphoric levels - timpani rolls anchoring.  Schumann draws his points together with a superb literal working through with counterpoint across the many variations on the opening theme we have heard, the trumpets relive their earlier role. The energy can easily sag here - some conductors drop the pace and take us to the monumental - that’s where the next symphony is going.  This symphony benefits in my view from a fastidious application pace and energy only breaking into the magisterial when the final vista opens up.

This work is thrilling beyond belief when you get deeply into Schumann’s writing - it has been overlooked because like all good things - it requires work by both musicians and audience.  It is very close to Schumann’s heart I think and his troubled health is only part of a very picture of it’s content.  It is bold, and beautiful and for it’s time so modern people are still catching up with it. I embrace it as a major contribution to the development of the Romantic ideal in classical music, it leads so many other developments. We should give poor Schumann credit for this great thing.

Here's David Zinman conducting the Tonhalle Zurich - I'm afraid the sound isn't great and the interpretation doesn't really match my ideal (but that's probably only in my head now).  What it does show is how the orchestra has to work in this piece.  Karajan is supposed to have said "Never again" as he came off stage after conducting this symphony.  One can see why.


Popular Posts