Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April Masterworks, Part 2: Schumann and His 2nd Symphony

Robert Schumann
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest soloist, HSO Principal Tuba, Eric Henry
What: Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, Schumann's 2nd Symphony and the world premiere of Brian Sadler's Tuba Concerto “Journeys”
When: Saturday, April 16th at 8pm; Sunday, April 17th at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance
Where: The Forum at 5th & Walnut, Harrisburg
Why: For one thing, it's a world premiere (no one else has heard the whole piece before) and while Dvořák and Schumann may be well known names to concert-goers, these are two works you don't hear that often and they really should be heard more often, so here's your chance!

In this previous post, you can read about the works on the first half of the program, the new Tuba Concerto written for Eric Henry in its World Premiere and the Serenade for Strings Antonin Dvořák composed during a particularly contented time in his life.

Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony would seem to originate in a productive and perhaps contented time in its composer's life, too, but the facts behind the scene indicate otherwise. But before we get into that, here's the complete symphony played by young British conductor Daniel Harding and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra recorded at a BBC-Proms concert a few years ago.
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

There are four movements, once the symphony begins at 3:03 after the introductory remarks and a brief but highly recommended interview: the first movement has a slow introduction (in several short parts) that gradually leads into the “movement proper,” as it were, at 6:21. The second movement is the scherzo, a euphoric ride that begins at 15:32. The gorgeous slow movement, in third place instead of the usual 2nd, starts at 22:30 after everybody takes a breath, wipes the sweat off their brows and lowers their pulses a few notches. Then after that emotional core of the symphony, the finale gets under way at 32:32.

Aside from the fact I'm not sure how “Mahler” and “Chamber Orchestra” work together (Mahler being a composer of some of the vastest symphonic canvases in the repertoire – he did, after all, write the “Symphony of a Thousand”), it's a very fine ensemble and this is a performance I highly recommend given the conductor's interest in maintaining that balance to give the work the sense of intimacy Schumann's music requires but rarely receives - and yet still make it sound emotional enough to be “Romantic.”

As Harding mentions in his interview, there's often been a “one-size-fits-all” approach to 19th Century Romanticism between the heroic grandeur of Beethoven, the hyper-lushness of Berlioz, the intensity of Brahms and the opulence, for lack of a better word, if not the sheer impact of Mahler. Schumann and his colleague Mendelssohn are “none of the above” and for all our thinking about them as Capital-R Romantic composers, they're basically classicists at heart (thinking more in terms of clarity of texture and harmonic language). The problem is, too many conductors play Schumann they way they do Brahms even though Brahms' symphonies belong to the next generation. They would never conduct Mendelssohn that way and yet Mendelssohn and Schumann's symphonies are exact contemporaries. In fact, Mendelssohn conducted the world premiere of Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in 1846.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

On the whole, the music may sound “happy” enough – after all, people consider C Major a bright and happy key, the opposite of Beethoven's dark and struggling, dramatic C Minor, if we think of Beethoven's 5th with its journey through “Fate knocking at the door” to the ultimate victory in the finale. Was this Beethoven's personal struggle with his impending deafness – the symphony composed in the years following his statement he would “seize Fate by the throat” – or is it a more universal struggle anyone could relate to? And what (if anything) does that have to do with Schumann's 2nd?

Without specific references to an intended “program” or story behind the music in the composer's own words (preferably first-hand and verifiable), it is dangerous to assume an interpretation based on what we hear (or think we hear) in the music.

Is there a significance behind that opening brass "call" that recurs throughout the symphony? Is it like Beethoven's "Fate" motive (only less aggressive), tying everything together? Or is it just a rising interval (like the one opening Haydn's "London" Symphony) that Schumann had a fondness for?

So let's begin with what was going on in the composer's life around the time he composed the piece.

Now, another 2nd Symphony – last month's Beethoven's 2nd which you can read about here – should remind us that a composer's emotional state is not always reflected in the music he's composing: consider the wildly joyous finale written around the same time Beethoven wrote his tragic “Heiligenstadt Testament” when it was clear he was in deep despair. There are long-term events and short-term events but how they effect music created over a span of time, longer or shorter, varies from composer to composer and probably just as easily piece to piece.

If you read program notes and composers' biographies at concerts, you're probably aware that Schumann suffered from some form of what we now call “bi-polar disorder” (previously “manic-depressive disorder”) and that he ended his life in an asylum two years after he tried to commit suicide.

The “manic/depressive” side of his life can be seen in those incredible bursts of creative energy – writing almost all his major chamber works in one year, most of them over the summer – which were usually followed by prolonged periods of almost total creative inertia, usually accompanied by periods of depression or painful episodes that ranged from tinnitus to auditory hallucinations, from rheumatism to “prickling nervous sensations especially in the backbone and finger-tips.” He might have attacks of giddiness and at other times remain silent for days, unmoved by any attempt at entertainment.

When he was writing regularly in the magazine he founded, one of the great musical journals of the day, he often couched his articles in the manner of Ancient Greek dialogues, creating a symposium of characters who took on different sides of an argument, especially those about the nature of music: the emotional response, the intellectual response, for instance.

Everyone writes about Florestan and Eusebius, two of his best known creations, and says, “Aha, see, he was 'schizophrenic'” without really understanding the term, the disease or the nature of his characters. In reality, given Schumann, the son of a book-seller, was always drawn to the literary world – he created little fictions in his short piano pieces that make up works like Carnaval or Kinderszenen – this was a literary outlet for him, perhaps in lieu of writing a play, and it is unfair to any author to say “the character and the author are one.” Besides, the device of a "round-table discussion" broke the constant pontificating of a journalist writing about his opinions in the first person, right?

But the medical aspects of his life were very real and certainly not understood. As with Beethoven's deafness, how might Schumann have been treated (much less diagnosed) today? Could prescribed medications have kept the symptoms at bay so he could have lived a happier, more productive life?

What kind of music might Beethoven have written if he hadn't had to deal with his deafness? Would we have the Late Quartets if he wasn't locked up internally, unable to hear the world and its music around him? One could ask the same of Schumann: even though his music is not considered “tragic,” would his music have been any different – better?

Or did he need the lows in his life to be able to experience the highs in his creativity? Would medication have leveled out Schumann's world to the point it produced music that somehow wouldn't rise to the level it did to touch us as it does?

The Schumanns in 1847
Whatever happened before he finally married the love of his life, Clara Wieck – truly one of the great love stories of all classical music – the first few years of the Schumann's marriage were probably the happiest of his life. But there were also problems: the composer had to deal with his no longer being a pianist, due to a self-inflicted injury to his hand, and so he watched his wife go on to become the great concert artist he had dreamed of. She championed his music (there was always something he'd composed on each of her programs) but it was “too modern” for too many and so he also dealt with disappointments when his music was rejected or misunderstood. There was also the fact he would accompany her on her foreign tours and be treated like any normal husband going along for the ride: “Mr. Clara Schumann,” in other words.

In 1842, two years after their wedding, Schumann began experiencing “nervous weakness” and an inability to compose at all, following bursts of creativity during the previous two years. Such bouts were often interrupted by “periods of elation,” only to pass again into a depressive or “melancholic” state.

Following such an attack in the fall of 1844, they had moved to Dresden (culturally more provincial than exciting Leipzig). He noted that his “nervous illness” waxed and waned. Despite his doctor's orders to avoid music, in January Schumann began to teach his wife counterpoint (an old skill both of them as composers were technically deficient in). In May, he wrote to a fellow composer, “Gloomy demons possessed me,” and later, “Now it is better and I am working again, something that had been quite impossible for months.” But Clara was writing in her diary at the same time how “Robert's nerve trouble will not lessen.”

In June (1845), Schumann wrote to Mendelssohn in Leipzig, “what an awful winter I have spent with a terrible nervous languor accompanied by a host of terrible thoughts that nearly brought me to despair; but things look better now – music is again beginning to sound within me, and I hope to be recovered soon.”

That fall (1845), he again wrote to Mendelssohn, “[Dr.] Carus has recommended early-morning walks which do me a great deal of good but I am not yet myself and every day I suffer... in a hundred different places. A mysterious complaint – when the doctor tries to take hold of it, it seems to disappear.” (Well, I'm sure many of us can relate to that...)

a sketch for 2nd Symphony
Remember, then, that Schumann sketched his 2nd Symphony between December 12th and 28th of 1845 though he didn't begin orchestrating it until February 12th, 1846. Unfortunately, he then experienced a prolonged melancholia from May through July, followed by a period of “remission,” and finally completed the work on October 19th, only weeks before Mendelssohn conducted its premiere in Leipzig (which was more receptive to Schumann's music) on November 5th.

You could assume the music sounds “happy,” “hopeful,” ultimately “triumphant” (in a brilliant flash of C Major at the end) because of the storm he had passed and the joy of having another period of elation to compose in, riding a wave that, alas, didn't last long. 1848 would be an almost year-long depression but the next few years would be relatively anxiety-free except for minor “swings” here and there and the possibility he might have had a stroke. But when Brahms arrived unannounced on the Schumanns' doorstep, those were good days – until the following February when an attack of “acute delirium” came on quite suddenly resulting in his attempted suicide later that month.

His state of mind that February is sad reading, so let us think we can be glad to have such happy music as his 2nd Symphony at all...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

In the video clip from the BBC Proms, the host's introductory remark about this being the second of Schumann's NINE symphonies is not exactly accurate. True, if you consider he wrote four symphonies, it would be flat-out wrong, and while I expect she just simply “misspoke” (been there/done that), there's a longer story behind the statement. No, there are not really just four Schumann symphonies.

Aside from his first attempt at writing a symphony, a student work in G Minor which he left incomplete in 1833 when he was 23, he began 1841 with his first “serious” attempt writing a symphony (mostly because his wife Clara, one of the greatest pianists of the century and a composer herself, goaded him into it, that no composer has “arrived” until he's dealt with writing a symphony) – and so we have his “Spring” Symphony as it's usually called.

This having proven such a successful experience, Schumann immediately sat down and composed three more symphonies the rest of the year – or almost composed them: he sketched a symphony in C Major but it went nowhere; he wrote an overture, then added two more movements (a scherzo and a finale) which he called, rather unimaginatively, the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale,” essentially a symphony without a slow movement. Why didn't he just go ahead and write a slow movement, this man who could write incredible tunes and could bring tears to your eyes with the poignancy of his adagios? Who knows!

Then, he ended the year by completing a Symphony in D Minor which, when premiered with the not-quite-a-symphony, didn't satisfy him or the audience, so he withdrew it.

In 1845, after leaving bustling Leipzig behind for the more staid lifestyle of Dresden, he began another symphony in C Major – apparently not the same one in the sketches from 1841 – which he eventually published as No. 2, the symphony we'll be hearing at this weekend's concerts.

Then, in 1850, having settled down to his new life in even more staid Düsseldorf on the Rhine, he composed a symphony in E-flat Major known as the “Rhenish” Symphony, inspired by the great river that flowed through the town. In 1854, months after meeting a young man named Brahms, Schumann would attempt to drown himself, jumping off a bridge into that same Rhine just a few blocks from his house.

However, in those few years remaining before his attempted suicide, he took up the D Minor Symphony from ten years earlier and revised it, finally deciding to publish it, and so it became No. 4. As far as new symphonies go, yes, the 3rd was really the last one he composed. Technically, the D Minor is the second symphony he completed, but then he revised it and sent it to the publishers last.

There would be no more symphonies after that.

So counting those two versions of the D Minor Symphony as separate works (which they're not, really – Brahms, by the way, published the earlier version, which he still preferred, in 1891 over Clara Schumann's “strenuous objections”) and the earlier C Major sketch which was never published (I'm not sure it was ever actually completed), plus that “Overture, Scherzo & Finale,” as well as a student work in G Minor usually called the “Zwickau Symphony” (after his home town), that would mean there are (or could have been) eight symphonies.

Who knows what we might have had had Schumann not died at the age of 46? Or if he had been able to receive treatment and not suffer from such a life as he lived?

Dick Strawser

P.S. You can read more about Schumann's final years in this post at my blog, Thoughts on a Train.

April Masterworks: A New Tuba Concerto Kicks Some Action and a Serenade You Can Unwind With

Eric Henry & Tuba
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest soloist, HSO Principal Tuba, Eric Henry
What: Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, Schumann's 2nd Symphony and the world premiere of Brian Sadler's Tuba Concerto “Journey”
When: Saturday, April 16th at 8pm; Sunday, April 17th at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance
Where: The Forum at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg
Why: For one thing, it's a world premiere (no one else has heard the whole piece before) and while Dvořák and Schumann may be well known names to concert-goers, these are two works you don't hear that often and they really should be heard more often, so here's your chance!

April Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

(This post is about the first two works on the program: read about Schumann's 2nd Symphony, here.)

Eric Henry joined the HSO in the spring of 1984 as the orchestra's principal tuba player (or tubist, to use the correct term). As a Chambersburg native and Carlisle resident, he has long been known in the region as a performer, teacher and advocate for the arts and education, a player of classical music – he is also the principal tubist in the York and Lancaster Symphonies – various brass quintets throughout the land and with Hot House (a Dixieland band with a core trio, others added “as needed”) beyond the land as Jazz Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department in 1999. He is also the founder of what's become a Carlisle tradition, “Octubafest” which is no doubt self-explanatory. Plus he's on the faculties of Dickinson College and Messiah College.

While we describe Eric as “a long-term member” of the symphony, I think we could say his association with the orchestra goes back a bit longer than the past 32 years. During the 1980s, when I was assistant conductor and personnel manager under the HSO's music director, Larry Newland, Eric told me how he'd been taken to hear a concert of the Harrisburg Symphony when he was a kid and how he was fascinated by the man playing the tuba – that would've been Earl Caton – and especially the instrument, deciding that that's what he wanted to do: play the tuba.

Here's Eric as a guest at one of the orchestra's “Musical Chairs” Meet the Musicians events – currently held during concert intermissions in the far-right-side of the Forum lobby – giving a young audience member a more hands-on introduction to what a tuba can be. Who knows if, twenty years from now, this will be another HSO tubist (or a music-lover and regular subscriber to the orchestra's concerts) because of an opportunity to experience music like this?

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Brian Sadler is a Maryland-born, Pennsylvania-raised, Florida-based composer whose career has been as a brass player in the Navy bands, currently located in Jacksonville FL as a trombonist with the Navy Band Southeast. He has performed with a variety of bands in a variety of locations (from Virginia to Washington State to Japan and now to Florida), writing and arranging some 75 pieces for band and chamber ensembles within the band. He's also composed numerous film scores

About the Concerto that Eric Henry is premiering this weekend, Sadler explains it began life as a single movement sonata called the “Kick-Ass” Sonata which he then arranged with wind-ensemble, renamed the “Action” Sonata. Eric played it with the Messiah College Wind Ensemble and liked it so much, he asked about adding a couple more movements to make it a full three-movement concerto – with orchestra.
= = = = =

= = = = =

The composer writes, “Journey is a three-movement concerto for solo tuba with orchestral accompaniment. The piece resembles the styles of modern film music while featuring the versatility and skills of the tubist.

Brian Sadler
“The first movement, Sonata, was originally written for young tuba virtuoso Gabriel Sears while he and I were studying at Arizona State University. After performing some of my pieces for brass at a few composition recitals, Gabriel asked me to compose a piece for his sophomore recital. Wanting to do something different, I decided to compose a piece with an accompaniment using the orchestra sounds from my computer rather than the standard piano. The piece, called Kick-Ass Sonata for Tuba and Orchestra, was a hit and was later published by Brassworks 4 and played around the country. Pennsylvania tubist Eric Henry enjoyed it so much that he and Dr. Bradley Genevro, Director of Bands at Messiah College, asked me to arrange it for concert band. With the success of the concert band performance, it was only natural to arrange the work for full orchestra and add two more movements, officially making it a concerto.

“Sonata has many pop and modern film-scoring influences, such as the ostinato-like [i.e., repetitive] main theme and heavy brass hits. After a brief introduction, the soloist comes in aggressively, letting the listener know that this will not be an ordinary tuba part of oom-pah-pah bass lines and whole notes. After expressing dominance over the orchestra, the soloist retreats for a moment to catch his or her breath. A new theme is introduced with the support of pizzicato strings (much like straining to hold up a dump truck). The rest of the orchestra joins and just as it’s settling in, the feel changes again, with the main theme coming back into play and shifting gears while the soloist drives the orchestra home.”

Then, the two new movements:

“The second movement, Ballad, slows the tempo and darkens the mood with evil-sounding chord progressions and a haunting melody. The soloist in this movement is calling out from a distant grave, lost in darkness and fog, beckoning its next victim to come closer. The more the melody is played, the more embellished it becomes, revealing the terrifying, long-forgotten secret of the demise of the tuba.

Journey ends with a bang in the Finale. More ostinato rhythms dominate the strings while the soloist dances above in a fury of tonal fire. The theme goes through several variations featuring the trusty solo tuba in different adventures. The piece closes with a series of fast runs that allow the soloist to go out in a final blaze of glory before again playing the dull but necessary bass lines from the rear of the ensemble.”

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

“Kick-Ass” may not be a term easily applied to Antonin Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, a work more in tune with lazy summer evenings and the conviviality of friends and family rather than with a cartoon action hero. You could, however, say it's a work written by a contented composer.
= = = = =

= = = = =

Dvořák in the 1870s
Written in 1875 at a time when the composer – 34 years old and not yet on his way to being the famous composer he would become – was particularly happy: married in 1873, his first son had just been born. Barely making ends meet as a teacher and free-lance musician in Prague, he had submitted some scores to a competition in Vienna (Prague, the capital of Bohemia, had been part of the Austrian Empire for centuries) where one of the judges, Johannes Brahms (who incidentally was a year away from finishing his 1st Symphony), took notice of Dvořák's submission which included two early symphonies, some chamber music and a song cycle (15 pieces in all). The prize – to support “talented composers in need” – was given in February, 1875. Two years later, Dvořák would win the prize again and this time gain additional support from Judge Brahms who offered to submit some of his works to his own publisher. Essentially, that would be the start of Dvořák's career in the wider world.

As a result of this 1875 award, though, Dvořák felt happy enough not just with his personal life but with his professional future, to compose a string quintet, a piano trio, his 5th Symphony, and this String Serenade in quick succession. Based on the idea of an “evening's entertainment” as Mozart wrote Serenades (such as his famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik), this serenade was written between May 3rd and 14th!

It's in five movements – a gentle, lyrical opening followed by a waltz and a dance-like scherzo; a wistful slow movement (reflective and certainly romantic) precedes the lively finale, almost like a village dance (Dvořák's famous “Slavonic Dances” were also in the future). The nostalgic mood is heightened by the occasional quotation of themes heard earlier in the work, especially at the very end: could there be anything more of a “happy ending” than this?

The “New World” Symphony, Dvořák's best-loved work, was 19 years into the future, a whole world away from the circumstances surrounding the composer when he wrote this delightful serenade.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony may sound like a happy work but there's a different kind of story behind it. You can read about it, here – and hear a performance from the BBC Proms – in the next post.

Dick Strawser