Schumann Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61
“A shadow lies within; but the other things it contains, my beloved, will make you rejoice…”
- Robert Schumann, May 1855
This quote is taken from the final letter Schumann wrote to his wife Clara. Shortly afterwards, the imaginary demons would return to haunt the agitated composer, who died a year later from complications of syphilis in an asylum outside of Bonn. These words are significant not only because they appear in the last letter to the person Schumann cherished most in his life, but also because - in his own words - they summarise how Schumann’s works were to be remembered: they are almost always conceived with bipolar characters in mind. This is certainly the case with his second symphony, the emotional range of which ranges from extreme melancholia to worldly triumph.
In fact, Schumann himself is among the best examples of a bipolar genius. The first great composer-writer in history, Schumann in his early days invented a whole world of literary figures in his diaries, letters, and journal publications, in order to wage a war against the Philistines he felt were ruling the musical establishment. Among these literary figures, two of Schumann's alter egos would stand out as the leaders of the so-called Davidsbund, or Band of David: Florestan and Eusebius.
Florestan is the wrongly imprisoned hero from Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio (we will stage this opera in December 2019, so keep an eye out!). The inspiration for Eusebius may have been Raphael’s painting Eusebius of Cremona. Florestan the wild and Eusebius the mild represent the mind and heart in Schumann’s artistic creative process. They are Beethoven and Schubert, Michelangelo and Raphael, all of whom Schumann revered as his artistic heroes. From the outset, Schumann placed dramatic conflict at the core of his artistic output.
This kind of doubling design is embedded throughout the second symphony, and is established right at the beginning. The mysterious brass chorale with which the symphony opens is accompanied by an equally melancholy string current underneath, creating a heartfelt ‘Eusebius’ moment. It is reminiscent of his D minor symphony, which also features a horn solo above a sequence of sixths on the strings. When the opening theme returns in the coda of the first movement, however, the same material is played with an entirely ‘Florestan-esque’ gesture, in the form of an unstoppable march towards the climax of the battle.
Returning to a previously stated theme in the same movement is not a new idea - virtually every piece constructed in sonata form does the same. However, weaving a subject throughout the fabric of a piece, as Schumann does in this symphony, is a technique worth noting as it points directly to Schubert and Beethoven, with both composers’ ninth symphonies setting the precedent. The Allegro theme of the first movement of Schumann’s second symphony re-appears in the finale, a moment marked con fuoco (literally ‘with fire’). This dotted theme is in itself ‘Schumann-esque’ as it throws off the listener’s sense of rhythm. Gone is the nice and easy four-bar theme followed by variations, which dominated the concert halls and private soirées of Germany at the time.
Then comes the Scherzo. Any violinist would tell you this is first-rate virtuoso playing. Some would go even further and suggest that this is a ‘pianistic’ composition imposed on strings. Its difficulty calls to mind a famous anecdote: a cellist once complained to Beethoven that his part in a quartet “did not lie within his hand”. “It must lie!” was Beethoven’s answer - and this was the answer we were given to our difficulties with Schumann’s scherzo, too! In the middle of the movement, Schumann inserted two trios, both characterised by a delicacy usually associated with chamber music. In the second trio, in particular, the lyrical oboe solo anticipates the soaring melodies in the finale.
The next movement - the Adagio - stands out as the most tragic invention not only of this piece but also perhaps of Schumann’s entire oeuvre, the only close counterpart being the slow movement of his Piano Quartet, op. 47. But even op. 47 has a certain degree of warmth and tenderness in the singing strings, whereas this movement of the symphony conjures pure devastation without any hope - for now, at least. It is the ultimate ‘Eusebius’ moment.
After the climax of the principal theme, we hear a fugue in the style of Bach, which reflects Schumann’s recent studies of the old master. Of all the great composers in the past, Schumann regarded Bach as the most complete; he always sought comfort in Bach’s fugues and canons when suffering from depression, as he did shortly before writing the second symphony in 1845. After the short fugue passage, Schumann brings us back to the principal theme of the movement, which he finishes off with some dissonance that never seems to resolve.
Of this symphony we have a personal account by Schumann himself in a letter to Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere at a Gewandhaus concert: “I sketched it out while suffering from severe physical pain; I may well call it the struggle of my mind, by which I sought to beat off my disease”. And beat it off, he did. In the last movement, the shift from melancholia to affirmation is total and abrupt, as is also the case in the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth. Schumann inserted two pauses into the final movement, which divide the whole movement into three parts. Gradually, he builds momentum towards the final triumph, the most sunlit theme of the whole symphony. This theme is a direct quote of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), which Schumann was quite fond of and turned to for inspiration in many other works.
And here once again we have to appreciate Schumann’s ingenuity in combining the four movements into a coherent whole. Having stated the first subject, which accompanies the fast string passages, Schuman brought back the Adagio theme to be played by lower strings and woodwinds - this time with joy and colour, and even a sense of humour! Then, shortly before the coda, we hear the triumphant return of the opening brass chorale, which creates an air of celebration. These things pass by instantly, and you might not notice them - but if you do, you’ll surely raise your eyebrows and say, “Isn’t that wonderful?”
© Jingwei Yu 2019