“From this listener’s perspective it is as perfect a symphony as exists — by anyone. Intellectually compelling, emotionally searing, kinetically irresistible, gorgeous in detail and large sweep, and a thrilling convergence of all his gifts, the Second Symphony is Schumann living his most determined struggle.” (David Hoose, program note for a performance by the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, Dec. 8, 2009)
Schumann’s other symphonies, no. 1 (“Spring”, 1841), no. 3 (“Rhenish”, 1851), and the troublesome No. 4 in D minor which underwent much revision (1841, 1851), can all be regarded as his attempts to expand the boundaries of the symphony beyond what had been bequeathed by Beethoven. Beethoven and Schubert, after all, had inherited the classical symphony from Mozart and especially Haydn, and expanded its boundaries in their own works so that it became the romantic symphony in dimension, form, and use of the evolving modern orchestra. But, for any 19th-century composer living after Beethoven, the problem of the orchestral symphony is simple to ask: what can possibly be done in the symphony after the example of Beethoven’s Ninth?
Three years after Beethoven had written his ninth and largest symphony, Franz Schubert answered that question for himself with his Symphony in C Major, variously called the Seventh, Ninth, or the “Great,” composed in 1825 when he was 28 years old. In fact it was Schumann, a little more than ten years after Schubert’s death, who actually discovered Schubert’s “Great” in Vienna, among manuscripts passed on to Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. It is not a little shattering to imagine how it otherwise might have been lost! Schumann dubbed it “the symphony of heavenly length” and sent the manuscript to Mendelssohn, who conducted the premiere in Leipzig in 1839.
Six years later, in 1845, Schumann wrote his own C Major symphony, the Second, It is certainly Schumann’s best symphony, even his finest orchestral work, finest in terms of the nobility of its content and gesture, and in the bold originality of its form. I would not call it a perfect symphony, pace David Hoose, for I think it has some weaknesses, and I would hold up Schubert’s C Major as closer to perfection than Schumann’s. I mention Schubert’s C Major thus in the same breath because I can point to parallels between the two works: the choice of key; the presence in both first movements of a long and eloquent slow introduction; the use of slow-introduction motifs in the first-movement coda in each; the extensive use of triplet repeated notes in the first and last movements of both symphonies.
Schumann’s efforts to expand the sonata form were not an attempt to go Beethoven and Schubert one better so much as his desire to meet the demands of his own time as he saw them. Those efforts produced important results in all of his symphonies and in much of his chamber music and piano music as well. In the first movement of the Second Symphony the immediate evidence is the abundance of thematic material, all of which is presented in nuce in the chorale-like slow introduction, Sostenuto assai — the stately trumpet fanfare is the most important motive (it returns cyclically in the scherzo and especially in the finale) , but there are others, notably the woodwind melody that first appears at m. (measure) 15. When the Allegro ma non troppo begins, it is already developing; there is a succession of three themes and three keys even before the Exposition repeats. The Development section hurries on with the same momentum, with an assortment of motivic fragments (from the Introduction) and by continuously modulating, and the Recapitulation, beginning at m. 245, never stops developing through even more keys. (Another interesting parallel with the first movement of the Schubert: Schubert’s Exposition begins forte, his Recapitulation begins piano; in the Schumann, just the reverse.) The Coda, beginning at m. 308, immediately modulates into new tonal territory, as Beethoven did in the first movement of the Eroica. All of this sounds quite breathless but wonderful nevertheless; the usual boundaries between sections are there, but they are blurred by the relentless forward motion. It is not that the different motives are too numerous or hard to keep track of mentally, so much that they follow each other without an opportunity to pause and reflect.
This would be difficult to sustain if the movement were much longer than it is. But the real problem in this movement is not formal but orchestral: almost everybody is playing almost all the time, and the timbral fullness can become tiring without careful attention to dynamics. Various conductors have tried to mitigate this by tactically removing doublings. The most notable of these revisers was Gustav Mahler, who judiciously altered important details in all of Schumann’s symphonies — one obvious and praiseworthy instance in this movement is at the beginning of the Allegro ma non troppo, where Mahler deletes the woodwind doublings — yet in the rest of this movement he leaves most of Schumann’s original scoring intact. George Szell, in his older Cleveland recording, cut out much more than this, and one misses it. From what I could tell without a score in hand, David Hoose didn’t adjust Schumann’s orchestration at all, but his results were excellent nevertheless. To say that Schumann’s orchestration sometimes has demonstrable flaws doesn’t deny that nearly always he was imaginative in his use of the orchestra and had a solid command of orchestral technique. I don’t buy the frequently-expressed opinion that Schumann thought only in terms of the piano when writing for orchestra, or that his orchestration was “routine.”
Like Beethoven in the Ninth Symphony, Schumann in his Second placed the Scherzo movement after the first, and like his own First Symphony, the scherzo of the Second has two trios. The main sections are a moto perpetuo, fast 2/4 with sixteenths, for the first violins; the first trio features the woodwinds with staccato triplet eighths, the second trio in smooth chorale-like quarters with strings and woodwinds together. I especially like the way this Scherzo modulates immediately from C major to E-flat major and then to G, exactly as did the allegro of the first movement (G major in the first, G minor in the second).
Possibly there is a weakness in Schumann’s having all four movements in the same key of C, even though the slow movement is in C minor (ending in C major). But the Adagio espressivo of the Second Symphony is unforgettable, one of Schumann’s noblest creations, with a long main melody and its continuation of uninterrupted, heaven-reaching serenity. The form is clear and relatively simple: a first section in three subsections modulating from C to E-flat; a brief fugato (12 bars); a repeat of the first section but modulating from C minor to C major; and a coda of 11 bars. The orchestration is light but full; as in the Scherzo, trombones are absent, and the strings carry the main substance. (The first violins go as high as D in the tenth position, certainly unusual for 1845.)
The finale, Allegro molto vivace, exhibits a sui generis design, a bold experiment in form that entails problems not fully solved. It begins with a more or less conventional sonata Exposition, with an effective modulation from C major to the dominant key, G major, and an even more effective distribution of three main themes. (The first phrase of the first theme is an upward-rushing scale; does anyone agree with me that the second phrase is a barely-concealed suggestion of the opening melody of the “Italian” Symphony by Schumann’s friend Mendelssohn, composed twelve years earlier?) The second theme turns out to be the opening four notes of the Adagio theme, modified to be sure, but clearly recognizable, and the third theme is the melodic inversion of this same cell, in G minor. The way all these themes are introduced and combined is ingenious and irresistible, and even the trumpet motto from the first movement gets into the act. The first problem emerges in the way this Exposition ends: in C minor, at m. 278. It sounds far too final, as though the entire movement were ending prematurely. Schumann, obviously realizing this, abruptly continues the movement by introducing a completely new theme in E-flat major. This new theme immediately shifts back to C major, becoming, together with the swooping scales that began the movement, the principal material of the next hundred bars. The Coda that follows — 175 bars more — pursues the new theme further but also includes a brilliant recapitulation of nearly all of the slow Introduction of the first movement, well integrated into the fast tempo of the finale, 3/2 meter superposed on 2/2. This is strikingly effective in overall form, yet inescapably weak from the tonal standpoint, because it never gets very far from the C major, which has already dominated most of the finale.
This makes it interesting to compare the extent of C major in this finale with that of Schubert’s C Major Symphony, or even with the finale of Beethoven’s path-breaking Fifth Symphony. One can even compare timings and numbers of measures: Schumann’s 589 bars of alla breve, about 8 minutes (Mahler’s re-orchestration makes several cuts in the Coda, removing about 50 seconds’ worth of music); Schubert’s 1154 bars of 2/4, about 10½ minutes of that “heavenly length”; Beethoven’s 444 bars, mostly a moderate Allegro 4/4, of which the last 82 bars, alla breve, are Presto, about 10½ minutes. Beethoven’s finale is a big sonata form that brings back 53 bars of the C minor Scherzo movement at the end of the Development section, and its Coda emphasizes the C major cadence relentlessly. Schubert’s finale, technically difficult to play because of the whirlwind tempo that is essential for effective performance, has a key structure that ingeniously plays off E-flat major against C major; the Coda goes through a succession of keys that makes the culminating C major all the more triumphant.
I would argue that the tonal scheme of Schumann’s finale doesn’t quite work. But there is so much else in this finale, indeed in the entire Second Symphony, that succeeds so well that I find it easy to overlook that flaw. I have no difficulty including Schumann’s Second in any list of the greatest symphonies of all time. At the age of 81 Igor Stravinsky wrote, “Schumann is a composer for whom I have a personal weakness, but the symphony is not his domain.” Himself a protean composer of different kinds of symphonies, Stravinsky was surely wrong about Schumann in this instance.
See related review here.