1846: Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C major (#3) (Homotonal), age 36

Mr. Peabody Says:

Nézet-Séguin said that when he asked his players to pick their favorite of Schumann’s four symphonies, they picked this one. So do I. I’d bet on the spot that if you talk to the best players in the world, this symphony is going to be on their list of best symphonies, and I know exactly why.

Celibidache, MPO

  1. Sostenuto assai — Allegro, ma non troppo, C major 12:58 (0:37-13:35)
  2. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, C major 7:56(13:48-21:44)
  3. Adagio espressivo, C minor – C major 14:46 (22:00-34:46)
  4. Allegro molto vivace, C major 9:16 (35:02-44:18)

Total time: 46:56


  1. Sostenuto assai — Allegro, ma non troppo, C major – 12:15
  2. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, C major – 7:06
  3. Adagio espressivo, C minor – C major – 12:35
  4. Allegro molto vivace, C major – 8:12 (end 40:16)

Total time: 40:16


  1. Sostenuto assai — Allegro, ma non troppo, C major – 11:06
  2. Scherzo: Allegro vivace, C major – 6:46
  3. Adagio espressivo, C minor – C major – 9:33
  4. Allegro molto vivace, C major – 7:27

Total time: 34:52)


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

1st Movement:

It starts slowly and very thoughtfully with a long introduction that lasts for several minutes, a trademark that goes all the way back to Haydn. Then it explodes with energy. The form is sonata.

2nd Movement:

This one those wonderful scherzos that is not in 3/4. It’s in 2/4, with fast 16th notes, so without checking a score you only know that there are two or four beats per measure, but everything is duple.

The trio reminds me of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”, so has to be either a very fast 3/4 or in triplets as in 2/4, which is how he wrote it. So in the trio he maintains that 3/4 feel of a traditional scherzo, which again goes back to Beethoven.

3rd Movement:

This music reaches me on an emotional and personally in a way I won’t even try to share. It is without doubt some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. This one movement alone is a whole story.

4th Movement:

There is not much to say about this last movement except that it’s a wonderful, optimistic end to a very powerful symphony.


It turns out that other people have not found one famous symphony other than this one after 1790 that does not change keys in different movements, so what Schumann did here was not only extremely unusual, it was deliberate. There are many modulations, so there is plenty of harmonic movement, but this movement takes place within the movements. Each thre of thefour eis in C major, ending in that key, although the slow movement starts in C minor.

Trombones came last…

Schumann composed this without trombones, then added trombones in a revision. Since I think trombones are amazing I’d like to hear them in every symphony, so for me this addition is a huge improvement!


Schumann began to sketch the symphony on December 12, 1845 and completed a draft of the whole symphony December 28. He spent most of the next year orchestrating it, beginning February 12, 1846. The exact date on which he completed the symphony does not seem to be solid, and I’m trusting all the dates to the research of others, but it’s safe to say he was done at around age 36.

Mental illness…

Schumann was tortured by depression from a young age, and by this time in his life it was already threatening to ruin his life. I have never read anything mean about Robert, so I wonder if today his problems would be treatable. On one hand the richness of his music is linked to this depression – and later out and out mental illness – so we can thank his inner demons for what we hear today, but I don’t think there is any other composer who makes me more sad when I think about his life. He seems to be a lovely man who suffered horribly from his own biochemical makeup combined with the impotence of the time in helping him. To all his friends his increasing suffering was a tragedy, and it was most devastating to to his wife and perhaps his closest friend, Clara, his wife. We should always remember that she was one of the most respected musicians of her time. She was not only a composer in her own right but also a famous pianist whose playing was hugely respected.

Ringing in his ears…

He never lost his hearing, but his hearing problems were really serious, and how he was able to create this beautiful symphony with all these physical and mental problems is a very similar spiritual triumph over unimaginable difficulties that we saw in the life of Beethoven as he lost his hearing.

He was now composing away from the piano…

He was making a big effort to severe his ties to the piano while composing by not continually trying things out at the piano. I did not know about this until tonight, but I’ve read about the whole process of “getting away from the piano to compose better” idea. To show that this is not necessarily a necessary thing, other composers such as Stravinsky never severed that tie – or wanted to – so the whole idea is a personal thing, a personal choice to liberate the mind.

He wrote:

Not until the year 1845, when I began to conceive and work out everything in my head, did an entirely different manner of composition begin to develop

It is written in the traditional four-movement form, and as often in the nineteenth century the Scherzo precedes the Adagio. All four movements are in C major, except the first part of the slow movement (in C minor); the work is thus homotonal:

Mendelssohn steps to the plate again..

The symphony was first performed on November 5, 1846, at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. So again here is Mendelssohn championing great music of his genius friends.

Probably the only person I’ve ever read about who had anything bad to say about Felix Mendelssohn is Wagner, the man whose views and actions were just about as disgusting as any great composer who has ever lived. Mendelssohn support of Schumann was typical of the man, and how ironic that this wonderful composer would be dead in November of 1847 from a an explosion in his brain that would end his life suddenly at age 48. All this is a great reminder of an absolutely horrible world these geniuses lived in.

Little more than an OK reception:

It was better received after a second performance ten days after the first performance. The work ultimately came to be admired in the nineteenth century for its “perceived metaphysical content”, but supposedly the symphony’s popularity waned in the twentieth. That’s going to change. I promise you that in another century this is going to be reevaluated as a monster addition to the symphonic literature.

2 thoughts on “1846: Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C major (#3) (Homotonal), age 36

  1. I listened to the whole symphony this morning – Yesterday I listened only to the 3rd movement; initially I was switching to several performances of that movement conducted by Bernstein at different times. The 3rd movement has a special poignancy. Today I listened to the whole symphony, using the Bernstein performance that grabbed me the most.

    I can enjoy any single movement by itself, but hearing them together is different because they gave an unfolding adventure. The first two have a kind of restlessness, barely contained, just on the tip of losing itself, always staying balanced, but almost tipping over into something. The third had a sudden calm, a wistfulness – instead of the restless wild feeling, it was soothing – bringing tears sometimes because it was sad, sometimes it was had a gentle soft sunshine. When the notes died, I felt this was the perfect end and no more should come. But then the FOURTH movement had a new energy, the opposite with the decisive force – but not restless like the first two. I am glad I listened to the whole of it.

    My choice was the one where Bernstein conducted the Viennese orchestra: it contained the energy of young Bernstein, but subtle turns – a stretching of a note, or emphasis – that I’d heard in one by an older Bernstein, like the best of both come together. I also listened to parts of Ashkenazy conducting it. The 4th has a whoomp to it; the violinists are actually grinning in unbridled playing. But the meaning isn’t there the same way in Ashkenazy’s. But different conductors let us hear different sides so I might listen to it again.

    Re: “This is a lot of C”- I had not noticed and don’t (yet) have the ears for it to catch. This was very interesting. And I learned a new word, “homotonal“. I wonder why Schubert chose to do that.

  2. Schumann
    I personally liked the second movement. I just liked the fast-paced playing, more than any other movement. While I respect and appreciate the other movements, they personally not as jam-packed with information and music. The second movement has more bang for your buck.

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