Schumann's Second Symphony: What Did Twentieth Century Critics Allow Schumann to Learn From Beethoven?

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Mendelssohn, Schumann

A friend lent me Anthony Newcomb’s 1984 article, “Once More ‘Between Absolute and Program Music’: Schumann’s Second Symphony”.  The best part of the article is the exhaustive summary of critical reception to the work in the 19th and 20th centuries, and commentaries on the radically different critical climate for Schumann’s work in those centuries.

Although the article is full of very useful information, it is written in academic-eeze, and therefore is not a literary pleasure. I confess that I prefer style as much as content even in academic papers.  I can’t help it. That’s why I like Charles Rosen so much…in fact, it is quite amusing to me to hear occasionally exasperated or condescending remarks about Rosen from jealous critics and musicologists.  It reminds me forcefully of a passage in William Shirer’s (3-volume, I’m referring to vol. 3) autobiography where he comments on the hostility of the official academic historian lobby to his best-selling “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which they decry as the irresponsible work of an amateur.  What they are really objecting to is the fact that it was chosen for Book-of-the-Month Club.  Jealous, Jealous, Jealous.

This post does not attempt to analyze the Schumann 2nd.  Maybe I’ll do that in a subsequent post.  For now, suffice it to say that the work clearly follows the paradigm of Beethoven’s 5th, with the famous “knocking at the door” unifying device replaced by a motive taken from Haydn’s 104th symphony, and the function of the scherzo in Beethoven is usurped by the (third movement) slow movement in the Schumann, and Schumann establishes C Major at the outset, and changes the nature of C Major between the troubled first movement and triumphant finale, reserving c minor for the slow movement, where, like Beethoven’s scherzo, it goes from minor to major as a device of transition to the finale; this is opposed to Beethoven’s plan of going from c minor to C Major over the course of four movements.  Whew! That passage wasn’t very literary!

I should mention that the scherzo in this work is a tour-de-force.  Its vitality and technical prowess rivals Mendelssohn. How did Schumann manage to rise above his orchestral limitations for this impressive movement?   

The question that concerns me currently is this: What use does the twentieth century allow Schumann to make of Beethoven? Newcomb points out that the Second Symphony enjoyed wide esteem in the nineteenth century, presumably because the 19th century exalted Beethoven’s 5th, as opposed to the twentieth, which decried it as bombastic pretension (at least among hoity-toity critics).  Consider the case of a Beethoven inspired piano work, the Fantasy, op. 17.  This is allowed, because here Schumann is appropriating one of the most personal, even sentimental and autobiographical themes in Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte, which may be understood as a typically Schumannian pun, referring both to Beethoven (the work was composed partly to raise funds for the Beethoven monument in Bonn) and to Schumann’s own distant beloved, Clara, whom he was attempting to marry at the time against the strenuous and exceptionally cruel opposition of that villain of the Schumann biography, Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck.  Maybe we should just call Old Man Wieck “Leopold”. 

I’m neither kidding nor exaggerating. Wieck was indeed a cruel man. Maybe Leopold was only selfish and insecure, but terrific damage was done by both flawed men; but you do need to credit Leopold (unlike Wieck) for creating the right environment for Mozart to develop artistically.  What if Leopold was an unambitious clerk, let’s say…would we still have Mozart? And are we missing potential Mozarts?

Many critics in the twentieth century wanted to put Schumann in a box. It’s easier, that way.  Schumann is personal, poetic, neurotic, secretive… but not the symphonic heir to Beethoven! We’ve already decided that only Brahms, and, for some, Bruckner can be that! Not Schumann, he’s our miniaturist, our fabulist, our aphorism maker.  If we admit the 2nd Symphony, we have to throw out our hasty generalizations! Much better to ignore or deride the work.  Remember: Schumann could only create aphorisms.