Back from B-A-C-H: Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C Major

From: About Bach

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Back from B-A-C-H Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 in C Major Douglass Seaton F or much of the year 1845, Robert Schumann was occupied with the composition of his Six Fugues on the Name B-A-C-H, op. 60. For some critics, this retrospective shift to a rigorous genre from the early eighteenth century seems symptomatic of a new pursuit of classicist control, one that marks the climactic point in Schumann’s journey from the fantasy of the piano miniature and the poetic Lied to the mastery of larger, more self-contained works. Others interpret the B-A-C-H fugues as manifestations of a particular subtype of the character piece, for Schumann had regarded the fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier as “character pieces of the highest sort, to some extent truly poetic creations, of which each asserts its own expression , its own lights and shadows.”1 Still others, like Georg von Dadelsen, assert that these compositions represent a downturn for Schumann, in which “[m]elody and form, originally manifestations of poetic fantasy, should now be built on ‘laws and rules.’ The creative work thereby attained a level of self-consciousness that it had not possessed earlier. It was brought to the edge of the ‘mechanical.’”2 However one evaluates Schumann’s fugues, the work on B-A-C-H in op. 60 exerted a significant impact on the composer’s next major work, the Symphony No. 2 in C Major, op. 61. The symphony presents intriguing problems of interpretation. Widely admired in the nineteenth century for its perceived metaphysical content, it became less popular in the twentieth, mainly because its structural peculiarities resisted analysis.3 Indeed, both its form and its content confront the listener and the music historian with unexpected challenges. Significant for the understanding of the symphony is Schumann’s engagement with Bach. Schumann’s interest in Bach’s music emerges in several different aspects of the symphony. The musical spelling of B-A-C-H appears in the second trio of the Scherzo, stated both in half-note and quarter-note values, at pitch and transposed (movement 2, mm. 230–232 and 257–262). The motive is introduced in a passage of regularly flowing eighth notes that evoke the steady rhythmic momentum of Bach’s music. Listeners since Brahms have noted a similarity between the melody of the symphony ’s slow movement and the opening of the first movement of the Trio Sonata 191 seaton 192 from the Musical Offering.4 This theme is an example of a pathopoeia, a Baroque figure characterized here by the upward leap of a minor sixth (from g' to eb"), followed by the highly expressive descent of a diminished fourth (eb" to b-natural') and then the resolution upward by a semitone (b-natural' to c"; Example 1). Linda Correll Roesner, crediting Bernhard Appel,5 points out the resemblance of this theme to the melody of the soprano aria “Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not” from Bach’s Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, which, however, does not begin with an ascending minor sixth but rather a descending major third. We might rather agree with John Daverio that the melody resembles the theme of the aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from the St. Matthew Passion.6 Whether or not Schumann intended a direct citation from a single Bach work can be questioned, but his reference to a recognizable topos seems unambiguously clear. In addition, conspicuous instances of “walking bass” effects, a common feature of Baroque music, occur in both of the symphony’s inner movements (movement 2, mm. 240–254; and movement 3, mm. 62–74). Christopher Reynolds identifies this device as a “topic for faith, resolve, and strength, whether in the special context of the Credo . . . or in operatic scenes that portray the same traits.”7 Schumann’s work on the C-Major Symphony occupied the last weeks of 1845 and much of 1846. He began sketching on December 12, 1845, just a few weeks after he completed the B-A-C-H fugues, and by December 28 he had practically finished a draft of the whole symphony.8 He started the orchestration on February 12, 1846, but worked only slowly because of trouble with ringing in his ears. The score was not finished until October 19. The first performance of the symphony—not a particularly successful one—took place on November 5, 1846, in the Leipzig Gewandhaus under Mendelssohn’s direction.9 The...