Schumann’s heartbreaking Second one of Lewis’ favorites

Courtney Lewis

When I’m asked the impossible question, “What’s your favorite symphony”, I usually refuse to answer, but inside my head a voice always cries out: Schumann’s Second!

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) was the archetypal Romantic: he loved poetry as much as music, couldn’t decide whether to be a musician or a writer, married another artist (the great pianist Clara Wieck), struggled with depression, had a ferocious sexual appetite, often stayed up for days at a time writing music, and died in an insane asylum from pneumonia after contracting syphilis. He was a brilliant pianist, writing only for the piano until this thirtieth birthday, but thereafter composing a collection of art songs second only to Schubert, alongside a voluminous orchestral repertoire including four symphonies, beloved piano and violin concertos, an opera, incidental music and numerous overtures and smaller works.

Chronologically his third, the Second Symphony was begun in 1845 shortly after Schumann had recovered from a nervous breakdown. I find it endlessly fascinating, haunting, heartbreakingly tender and beautiful, but most of all thrilling and life-affirming, for it is a piece about an artist triumphing over his inner adversity.

It’s also a work that disguises its inner program. While composing the Second, Schumann wrote to his colleague Mendelssohn: “For several days there’s been much trumpeting and drumming within in me.” We meet this trumpeting in the slow introduction to the first movement. Measured and almost religious in character, the introduction begins with the trumpets playing gentle fanfares of a rising fifth. Already we can sense ambiguity: fanfares are usually loud, not hushed. This simple motto will return at the end of both the scherzo and finale, blazing in glory and reflecting the composer’s psychological triumph. Schumann referred to the first movement as “moody and refractory”. This description has puzzled many critics, since it is mainly joyful and energetic. The clue lies in a remarkable passage about two thirds of the way into the main Allegro.

As often with Schumann, the entire movement is based on one small rhythmical motif, a technique learned from the Beethoven of the Fifth Symphony. Yet in Schumann’s hands, the rhythms are far more obsessive and claustrophobic. Starting softly, the orchestra repeats the motif for several minutes, gradually rising in pitch, the harmony becoming painfully dissonant. There is a growing sense of panic, as if the walls are closing in around us. Just when the tension has become unbearable, the trumpets come crashing in with the pure joy of C major, the home key of the symphony. Schumann has composed a nervous breakdown right in the middle of the movement. He has survived, but at great cost. After this manic episode comes music of sickly lethargy and gloom. Only after an extended period of exhaustion do we return to music of balance and optimism.

The second movement is famously virtuosic, its endless run of sixteenth notes nearly always used as an excerpt in violin auditions. Again, there is an obsessive element, but this time hearty and rambunctious, balanced by two beautiful trios. In the first the woodwinds chatter away gregariously, while the second finds a place of deep spiritual calm and contentment.

Switching the usual order of the middle movements, Schumann places the slow movement third. This Adagio is THE Romantic slow movement “par excellence.” Over a pulsing heartbeat in the lower strings, the violins spin an aching melody. Starting rather calmly, this is music of a less manic, sadder yearning. Owing much to the Beethoven of the Seventh Symphony, it builds to an inexorable climax of passionate longing.

The finale begins with a great flourish and much excitement. Schumann wrote that he was “himself again”, having suffered another minor breakdown after completing the third movement.

It begins as a march – a metaphor for the composer’s victory over the sickness of the previous movement – but before long the spiritual tone that pervaded the second trio of the Scherzo comes back. I always find myself close to tears as this music progresses, for it moves from the joyfully mundane to an expression of the ineffable and the sublime. Now the trumpet fanfares seem to come from the spiritual contentment of heaven, and all memories of the previous movements’ conflicts are subsumed in an eternal joy and rest. Schumann being Schumann, the symphony ends with all guns blazing, but we are left with a sense of triumph very different from that we experience at the end of Beethoven’s Fifth or Seventh. In confronting and banishing his inner demons right in front of us, Schumann has taken us out of the everyday into a place of timeless nirvana.

Written by Courtney Lewis, Music Director of the Jacksonville Symphony
Posted with the kind permission of The Florida Times-Union