Concert Notes

Schumann’s Symphony No. 2

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Schumann was suffering from both physical and mental illness prior to and during the composition of this symphony. His wife, Clara, observed that he could not sleep at night, and each morning she would wake to him sobbing. For much of the year he did not do a lot of composing—he tagged along with Clara on her performance tour of Russia, and then moved his family to Dresden—but began to sketch a new symphony in December of 1845, which he finished in October of 1846. While written in the bright key of C major, the use of tonality is often ambivalent; much of the piece does not yield the strong impression of being in the major. Schumann himself would later reveal to George Dietrich Otten, a musical colleague, that he wrote the symphony when he was still ill. He wrote, “I feel that people are bound to notice this when they hear the work . . . Only in the final movement did I begin to feel my old self again, but it was only after I had completed the whole work that I really felt any better. Otherwise, as I say, it reminds me of a black period.” The final movement indeed resounds Schumann’s triumph and hard-won affirmation, as the optimistic melody and resolution combat the moody and rebellious nature of the first movement. He also nods to Beethoven, as the theme echoes the last song, “Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder” from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte. As Schumann put it, “I would say that my resistant spirit had a visible influence on [the work] and it is through that that I sought to fight my condition.”