Robert Schumann wrote four symphonies; until Saturday night I’d listened to none of them. Since I have tickets for a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in less than three weeks that includes the second of the four, I’ve started doing my homework – Saturday night I listened to a performance by the great Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the late Leonard Bernstein, and yesterday morning I listened to a young and dashing Daniel Harding conduct the Mahler Symphony at the 2013 BBC Proms. The Mahler Symphony’s version is much better, and I don’t think it’s just the recording equipment. A brief interview before the work begins demonstrates Harding to be a passionate fan of Schumann, and from my other viewing experiences, the electricity of the Proms tends to help musicians be at their best.
The symphony plays out in four movements – the first, Allegro, begins with horns, then adds woodwinds. The oboes, flutes and clarinets then trade off with strings, all winding up to an electric finish. The second, Scherzo, is a whirlwind, up-beat and fiery, while the Adagio movement has a darkness that to my ears is a disconnect from the more triumphant other three movements. Triumph is indeed the tone of the final Allegro movement, where horns bring together a majestic main melody, ultimately yielding to timpanis, signaling the end.
Much has been written about Schumann’s struggles with mental illness – this symphony was composed at the end of 1845, after a severe break. Wikipedia reports that many view the work as a triumph over the mental illness. Perhaps the turbulent scherzo giving way to the lachrymose adagio is a nod to the constant presence of strife in the composer’s life, and the stoic triumph of the final movement is his hope.
I’m looking forward to seeing what Ricardo Muti and the CSO do with it later this month.
Thanks for reading.