On my desk today is Schumann’s 2nd Symphony. If you had assembled a panel of experts, including every major composer from 1825 to 1899, at the end of the 19th century to pick the most important symphony after Beethoven, Schumann 2 would probably have been the one, beating out all the Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohns easily.
One reason the piece was so highly esteemed in its day was that it is what I call a “crafty” piece- that is, it is not only exciting and emotionally shattering music, it is also music that contains an extraordinarily rich array of musical touches of compositional craft.
For instance, the piece is full of ciphers, codes, quotations and references to other music. The master of cipher and quotation is, of course, JS Bach, and, as it turns out, Schumann 2 is the most Bach-ian of the Schumann symphonies, and one of the most Bachian of all symphonies ever written.
There is a biographical reason for this. In 1844, Schumann had become terribly ill. Writers often speak, to my mind, rather glibly, of Schumann’s history of mental illness, and musicians and critics lacking in both good musical taste and human decency often seem to link Schumann’s health problems to what they wish to criticize in his music. “Of course Schumann couldn’t orchestrate,” they often say, “he was crazy…”
What I find particularly offensive in so much writing on Schumann is the intimation, or outright accusation, that Schumann’s mental illness was the manifestation of weakness on his part. As anyone who really understands the nature of mental illness can tell you, such an interpretation represents a sick misunderstanding of mental illness and brain chemistry.
Make no mistake about it- in 1844, Robert Schumann fell ill, nearly mortally ill, as much so as if he had developed cancer. That he recovered from this illness to write his greatest masterpiece shows an almost superhuman strength of will and great personal courage, not weakness.
At the height of his illness, Schumann was unable to listen to or work on music, tortured as he was by auditory hallucinations. As he began his recovery, he turned to an intense personal study of the music of JS Bach. Inspired by Bach, Schumann began work on his masterpiece while still ill, and composed his way back to health. Throughout the work, Bach seems to stand in the background, alongside Haydn and Beethoven as a trio of guardian angels, guiding Schumann back to his muse.
Bach is invoked in the very first bars of the symphony as Schumann writes an introduction at is, in essence, a chorale prelude, one of the most Bachian of forms. Above an endlessly self-reinventing and re-developing melody in the strings, we hear a simple and declamatory theme. Just as Bach would use a Lutheran chorale theme not of his own creation in his chorale preludes, Schumann’s chorale theme is also a quote- of the opening of Haydn’s last symphony, no 104.
One work that we know Schumann spent a lot of time with during his convalescence was Bach’s Musical Offering. The following Allegro ma non troppo is a study in perpetual motion, most of it generated from a simple four note theme which is treated almost as an ostinato. As it happens this ostinato rhythm is taken from the Trio Sonata of the Musical Offering, a piece that we’ll hear more of later in the symphony.
Other than the first page of Don Juan, nothing has brought more stress into the lives of violinists than the Scherzo of Schumann 2, the bane of orchestra audition-ers around the world. Sadly, I think the trauma of all those tapes and auditions have slightly blinded many players to the wonders of the Scherzo as a piece of music. It is a brilliant, endlessly inventive movement with two very different Trios- one spry and witty, and the second soulful and rarified. The second trio begins with a beautifully crafted four part chorale, the theme of which is then made the subject of a brief contrapuntal episode. Again, the spirit of Bach is felt in every bar, especially once we realize that the second part of the theme is a quotation of the musical BACH motive (Bb-A-C-B natural). All the more remarkable is that we can see that the BACH theme is almost identical to the main theme of the first movement, especially when it is transposed up a fourth later in the trio (Eb, D, F, E natural here, E, D, F, D in the first movement, surely no accident, given Schumann’s love of developing new themes by changing one note at a time) The movement reaches its joyous culmination in a return of the Haydn fanfare.
The third movement begins with what seems to be among the most heart-wrenching and Schumann-esque of melodies. If only Schumann had written it! In fact the violin melody is an almost note for-note quote of the same Trio Sonata of the Musical offering as he quotes in the first movement. In it’s pathos, espressivity and long-breathed lines, it is the quintessential (and perhaps the greatest) Romantic slow movement, but throughout the movement the independence of voices recalls the presence of Bach again and again.
The Finale was the movement in which Schumann said that for the first time since his illness began that he began to feel himself again. It begins with a bracing march theme which has a striking resemblance to “Es lebe Sarastro” from the Magic Flue, and that celebration of life seems very much the mood of the movement. Then, one by one, Schumann works his way back through the symphony- first reworking Bach’s Musical Offering theme, then gradually returning to the ideas of earlier movements. Along the way we find two songs, one by Schumann himself- Widmung (Dedication) presented to Clara on their wedding day, and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the Immortal Beloved), where Beethoven sets the words “Take them then, these songs.” As with the BACH-motive quote in the 2nd movement, Schumann seems to discover the Beethoven quote almost by accident, gradually changing a note or two of his own melody, until Beethoven’s cantus firmus emerges. “Take them then, these songs” says the poet to his beloved. A dedication indeed, of love and gratitude, a song of thanksgiving and love to Clara- Beethoven’s great hymn of thanksgiving was the Heiliger Dankesang from the op 132 quartet, a reverent and deeply personal statement of thanks. Schumann sings of love and gratitude to the whole world, and when Haydn’s fanfare returns at last, we know it is a call to celebration. At the end, Schumann has taken his place alongside those mentors, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and most of all, Bach.