1810 – 1856
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 1845
Few dispute that Robert Schumann was the most romantic of the Romantics, with musicologists talking of the new “hero” of the Romantic Era. In his approach to composition Schumann was the musical dissenter of his time. He saw little reason to honor the Classical structure because he recognized its strict limitations. As a result the adventurous Schumann was uncertain and melancholy even during his most productive years. He was plagued by personal psychological struggles and held concern for the future of the symphonic form since the most influential innovators of the time, Beethoven and Schubert, were in their graves.
It was in 1841 at the end of one of his many mental and physical convalescent periods that Schumann began working in symphonic form.
In his Symphony No. 2 the movements are interrelated by a recurrence of themes.
First Movement: The first motif appears in the brass during the brooding slow introduction to the first movement and returns later amid the turbulence of that same movement and is repeated again briefly in the second and fourth movements. Schumann wrote, “It is filled with struggle and is very capricious and obstinate in character.” The brass fanfare is heard simultaneously with a wavy theme pitched low in the strings. That line is as harmonically ambiguous as the brass fanfare is decisive. The music increases gradually, gaining tempo and conflicts erupt and warring elements clash before the finale, giving the impression that the darkness has been momentarily lifted.
Second Movement: This fast scherzo is a happy, spirited showcase for strings. The pace lets up for the movement’s two contrasting trios — the first being a melody shared by strings and woodwinds, while the second is a subdued meditation for strings and woodwinds. In the end, the brasses sing out their fanfare from the first movement.
Third Movement: This movement has long been regarded as one of the composer’s most sublime musical sections. Melancholic and tranquil, solo opportunities are provided for oboe, clarinet and bassoon.
Fourth Movement: From the robust march-like beginning to the long, optimistic ending, it is clear that Schumann has regained good physical and mental health. The joyful finale sweeps away the clouds that have been hanging over the symphony. The gentle theme (a solo oboe) appearing midway is by Beethoven from his song cycle To the Distant Beloved. The composer is paying tribute to his beloved wife Clara.