Thoughts on Schumann and the 2nd Symphony

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Robert Schumann, 1850
Robert Schumann, 1850

Bach – Thou

Beethoven – We

Mahler – Me

Stravinsky – It

J.S. Bach’s music, whether an intimate cantata or the Mass in B minor, focuses on Heaven, even while it preaches to us mortals in his congregation. Ludwig van Beethoven’s most public music, from Missa Solemnis to the Ninth Symphony, strives to speak for all humanity, to draw us together as one family, all the while the composer imagines the world is falling apart. Gustav Mahler, from the Finale of the First Symphony to the incomplete Tenth, lies on Freud’s couch and invites us to be voyeurs of his own analysis. And Igor Stravinsky, sometimes irascible and always tough, would have us believe that music expresses nothing but itself. He thinks his voice is that of It, and he works to compose It music, but he fails every time he writes something that breaks our hearts–the slow movement of the Piano Concerto, Symphony in C, The Rake’s Progress, the closing pages of Petrouchka.

Schumann – I

Not Me, We, It, or even Thou, whether the music is as deeply personal as the A major String Quartet, as intimate as Dichterliebe, as ambitious as Scenes from Goethe’s “Faust,” or as brilliant as the Second Symphony. Freed of self-focus, ego or narcissism, his musical voice struggles to speak not about Schumann, but from Schumann. It is the pure voice of I, a voice constantly trying to break through often stifling bonds to a fully unrestrained spirit, whether that spirit is filled with grief or joy. His struggle between the blocks and the desire to cut through energizes the I, ignoring the Me, We, or even Thou. Peter Ostwald, in Schumann–The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, suggests that the composer was driven by an inhibition of rage. Not by rage, but by the inhibition of rage. The music is not about Schumann’s struggle. It is his struggle.

Schumann seems not to be concerned with us. Whether anyone is listening is a big question, for the music is often impatient, anxious, or even desperate. Maybe to him it doesn’t matter. John Harbison has pointed out that the wonder of Schumann’s late works lies in his seeming lack of concern for what anyone else would think of what he was writing. Harbison’s observation, born of love and admiration for the music, could easily be extended to much of the earlier music, as well.

If we are going to listen, if we’re willing to meet Schumann exactly where Schumann is, it’s great; if not, the music can seem bafflingly neutral, or just baffling. The music of Brahms (the composer we most strongly associate with Schumann) doesn’t require the listener to be as flexible, since often it both is inspired by universally shared emotions, and provokes universal ones. Those inclusive emotions, however, may conceal Brhams’ own caution and reluctance to reveal himself. But Schumann is never as careful, and his music risks much. His boldly revealing voice may not be so easy to handle, and a more comfortable may be more to our liking. We make room for We, Me, It, and even Thou, but I can give us trouble.

Schumann’s voice is a sharp one, seldom at ease but never guarded, skittish but yearning for comfort, depressed but never hopeless. (Much of Schumann’s most thrilling and optimistic music comes out of his darkest days.) Yearning to speak more than to be heard, his music–above all–strives. It has no choice. “Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, das Können wir erlösen.”–Whoever endeavors to strive, to him may we grant redemption. Words from Goethe’s Faust that drive the climactic central chorus of Schumann’s own Scenes, could have been the composer’s own.

I yearn for the day when a thoroughly sympathetic view of Schumann emerges, one supplanting the lingering idea, passed on from biographer to musician to music-lover and back, insinuating that his music, while selectively inspired, was hampered by enough contrapuntal inexperience, unevenness in motivic invention, formal insecurity, and outright incompetence in orchestration that it should not be considered in the same sphere with Chopin’s, Liszt’s, or even Brahms’s. Over a century after Schumann’s death, critics–with a few notable exceptions that include John Daverio–still have not challenged this condescending attitude. Biographers often seem more interested in pointing out supposed weaknesses than in trying to experience the music on its own terms, or even in puzzling over what the composer was trying to do. Even the principal English-language writer on Schumann, Gerald Abraham, author of Schumann: A Symposium, and of the Schumann entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edition 1980, is either unwilling or unable to muster much enthusiasm for a good deal of his music. Few composers of any significance receive such ill treatment. Minor works of Brahms always receive more respect, even the most bizarre music of Liszt inspires sincere admiration, and Chopin is a god. But to some people, Schumann seems to hold only amateur status. Perhaps any shortcomings there may be lie in those listeners’ unwillingness to imagine a way that is not Brahms’ or anyone else’s, an inability to look directly at the object at hand. A reluctance to meet the composer.

If we are open to meeting Robert Schumann, or to engaging him at the conjunction of his I and our own (without blurring the two), we see the flaws, not in the music, but in the criticism. The purported uncertainty of his large designs evaporates into an engaging, if sometimes twisting, narrative flow, more like Wagner than Brahms. Schumann’s much maligned orchestration becomes lucid, if not always transparent, and turns its focus on the musical idea, rather than a myriad of glamorous colors.And, the oft-repeated notion of melodic and rhythmic limitations falls when we hear the powerful consequence of his unusual concentration of ideas. The idea that Schumann was merely a miniaturist collapses in absurdity.

[Giving the music clarity of sonority and impulse requires caring ears and considerable rehearsal time. Even a mediocre orchestra giving an ill- or under-rehearsed performance of a symphony by the much more performer-friendly Brahms can be convincing, while a first-class orchestra’s performance of a Schumann symphony that has not been adequately considered and rehearsed can sound downright dull. Bad performances of Brahms never make us doubt his worth, but less than thoughtful ones of Schumann can make the listener suspicious. But being user-friendly is by no means evidence of musical value. We just have to take care of the ones who aren’t.]

The Second Symphony perfectly rebuts any doubts about Schumann’s confidence, mastery and vision. From this listener’s perspective, it is as perfect a symphony as exists–intellectually compelling, emotionally searing, kinetically irresistible, gorgeous in detail and thrilling in large sweep. The Second Symphony is Schumann living his most determined struggle. The unusually shaped phrases, the black-and-white but somehow vivid color of the orchestra, the extraordinary concision of ideas, and a vigorous and subtle larger rhythmic sense surpassed only by the mature Haydn, create a music that is, at every turn, fresh and vivid. Unshakable nervousness harasses irrepressibly aching lyricism; ease and dis-ease fight for the same space; the feelings fight to get out.

Although the agitation of the first movement Allegro and of the fiery Scherzo may be somewhat softened by this second movement’s freely sailing second trio, and then by the aching third movement, the anxiety never evaporates completely. Within the calmer moments lurks the search for some relief, a cause the last movement will pick up and thrillingly fulfill. This Finale suffers none of the musical-dramatic problems that so often plague composers: how to sustain and intensify the thoughts that propelled the earlier movements. In the last pages of the Symphony, with the music burning hotter and hotter, the aspiring gesture that had opened the first movement reappears, now in a thrusting white heat, and the music begins to find its long-sought freedom. Schumann wrote, “The symphony was written in December 1845 while I was still half sick: I feel as though one must hear that in it. Not until the last movement did I begin to feel well again; really, after the whole work was completed, I became better again. But otherwise…it reminds me of a dark time.” Not even the exultation at the close can conceal the extraordinary cost of the journey.

– David Hoose

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