Length: c. 38 minutes
About this Piece
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 5, 1939, Otto Klemperer conducting
Schumann‘s Second Symphony began to take shape at the end of 1845, shortly after his recovery from a nervous breakdown. His comment then to Felix Mendelssohn, “drums and trumpets have been sound- ing in my mind for some time now,” might strike us as a wry reflection on his dis- turbed mental condition, replete with aural fantasies, of the year preceding. Follow- ing the breakdown, Robert and Clara left Leipzig where, despite the Schumanns’ participation in the city’s social and artistic life, Robert “could find no peace,” as he wrote to a friend, and where he taught with little pleasure or aptitude at the Conserva- tory.
On his doctor’s advice, they moved to Dresden, quieter, more conservative in its artistic tastes and, Robert recorded, “with a more benign climate,” presumably refer- ring to its less humid weather. There, he recovered sufficiently to resume compos- ing, although his musical colleagues, with several notable exceptions (among them the composer-conductor Ferdinand Hiller and the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder- Devrient, Wagner’s first Senta and Venus), regarded his work as dangerously modern. Music, in fact, was not nearly so highly prized in Dresden as literature and the visual arts.
During a visit with Clara to Leipzig some months after the move, Robert wrote to Hiller, “The life and people do cheer us up considerably. Eventually, we think we will settle here again.” It didn’t happen. Nor, as things turned out, did it matter where he lived. Schumann’s demons had no geo- graphical locus.
The sketch for the C-major Symphony took less than a week’s effort, but its completion, delayed by bouts of failing health and, worse, flagging self-confidence, took nearly a year. With Mendelssohn’s encour- agement, the task was finally completed and Mendelssohn led the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on Novem- ber 5, 1846. The remarkably cooperative (and appreciative) Mendelssohn agreed to a second performance two weeks later. For this occasion, Schumann made substantial changes in the orchestration, including what turned out to be a magnificent inspi- ration: the addition of the trombones of the present edition.
The “drums and trumpets” referred to earlier serve as the motto-fanfare (in C) that opens the Symphony and reappears near the end of it, the composer’s grandest orchestral conception: a score begun in confidence with a heroic opening move- ment (Schumann, unaccountably, called it “moody and refractory”) and the whiplash scherzo, followed by the yearning, ecstatic adagio – to more than a few ears the quint- essential Romantic slow movement – and a triumphant finale, “in which I am myself again,” Schumann wrote, referring to the fact that he had suffered another nervous seizure and a period of creative inertia after completing the Adagio. He was indeed a confident, masterful self for a brief time – less than a year – thereafter, after which the darkness would again begin to close in around him. — Herbert Glass