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.
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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.

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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...

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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.

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