SCHUMANN:  Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 54

Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony on June 8, 1810, and died in an asylum at Endenich, near Bonn, on July 29, 1856. He originally composed the first movement of his Piano Concerto as a “Fantasy” for piano and orchestra in May 1841; the Intermezzo and rondo-finale were added four years later. Clara Schumann, the composer’s wife, was soloist in the first performance on New Year’s Day 1846, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Ferdinand Hiller (to whom the work is dedicated). The North American premiere was given on March 26, 1859, at Niblo’s Gardens in New York City by Sebastian Bach Mills, with the New York Philharmonic under Carl Bergmann. Harold Bauer first performed the concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, Alfred Hertz conducting, in December 1917. The most recent performances, in June 2013, featured Jonathan Biss as soloist, with Roberto Abbado conducting. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani; and strings. The first movement cadenza is Schumann’s own. Performance time: about thirty minutes.

"And are you a musician, too?" they used to ask Robert Schumann when he went along on his wife's concert tours. Clara Schumann, née Wieck, was a celebrated keyboard artist from her youth, and she was renowned through her long life (1819-96) for her musical intelligence, taste, sensibility, warm communicativeness, and truly uncommon ear for pianistic euphony. Their marriage, though in most ways extraordinarily happy, was difficult, what with Robert's psychic fragility and Clara's demanding and conflicting roles as an artist, an artist's wife, and a mother who bore eight children in fourteen years. Their courtship was difficult as well. Clara's father, Friedrich Wieck, was a celebrated piano pedagogue, and when Schumann was an unwilling and easily distracted law student at the University of Leipzig in 1828, he took lessons from him. Clara was then just nine, but she was already beginning to give concerts. Immediately there was mutual liking between the gifted girl and the moody, piano-playing law student. When he returned to Leipzig in 1830, it was to live in the Wieck household and, finally with his widowed mother's blessing, to prepare himself to become a musician.

Quickly there was distress on practically every front. Schumann quarreled not only with Friedrich Wieck about the course his training ought to take, but also with Heinrich Dorn, the theory teacher to whom he had gone against Wieck's advice. Deaths in his family affected Schumann deeply, and he suffered his first attacks of depression. Through the unwise use of some sort of mechanical contraption for strengthening the middle fingers of his right hand, he did so much physical damage that he had to give up any thought of a career as a pianist.

Then Clara Wieck fell in love with him. In a few years he would reciprocate that feeling, passionately, but here too he made a considerable detour, becoming involved with Ernestine von Fricken, another of Friedrich Wieck's pupils. When, finally, he was ready to return Clara's love, Wieck did everything in his power to separate the two, even invoking the law. Meanwhile, Clara encouraged Robert's advances but refused to marry him without financial security and her father's permission.

These were years, for Robert, of anger, despair, heavy drinking, lawsuits, and fantastic fertility in composition. Most of his greatest piano works come from this time. Schumann had also founded what would long be an influential magazine, the Neue Leipziger Zeitschrift für Musik, later Neue Zeitschrift für Musik,and had begun his distinguished career as a writer about music. He had formed friendships with Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Ignaz Moscheles. And finally, in 1840, the various legal, psychological, and financial obstacles were overcome and Robert and Clara were able to marry.

Clara Schumann was ambitious for her thirty-year-old husband and urged him to conquer the world of orchestral music. He had actually ventured into that territory a few times, making starts on four piano concertos and writing a rather sophomoric symphony in G minor, but he had not yet met with success. He now went ahead and produced a superb Concert Fantasy with Orchestra for Clara as well as writing two symphonies, the first version of the D minor (now known almost exclusively in its revised form of 1851 and listed as No. 4) and the Spring. He could interest neither publishers nor orchestras in the one-movement Concert Fantasy, and so he expanded it into a full-length three-movement concerto.

In 1839 Robert had written to Clara: "Concerning concertos, I've already said to you they are hybrids of symphony, concerto, and big sonata. I see that I can't write a concerto for virtuosi and have to think of something else." He did. Now, in June 1845, while the metamorphosis of the Concert Fantasy was in progress, Clara Schumann noted in her diary how delighted she was at last to be getting "a big bravura piece" out of Robert (she meant one with orchestra).

Schumann's "something else" was noticed—first of all, of course, by Clara, who wrote in her and Robert's marriage diary that in the Fantasy "the piano is interwoven with the orchestra in the most delicate way—one can't imagine the one without the other." Most chroniclers of the first public performances, along with noticing how effective an advocate Clara was for the concerto, were also attuned to the idea that something new—and very pleasing—was happening in this work.

F.W.M., who reviewed the first performance in Leipzig for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, noted that the many interchanges between solo and orchestra made the first movement harder to grasp at first hearing than the other two. One thing that strikes us about this first movement is how mercurial it is, how frequent, rapid, and sometimes radical are its mood-swings. Or, to put it another way, how Schumannesque it is.

The opening is as dramatic as can be. The orchestra fires the starting gun, and the piano moves out of the blocks with a powerful cascade of chords. Not only is the cascade itself dramatic, but so is the contrast between it and the wistful oboe tune it introduces and which the piano immediately repeats. In 1868 the twenty-five-year-old Edvard Grieg, then a student at Leipzig, had heard Clara Schumann play her husband's concerto and recalled this very precisely when it came time for him to write his own Piano Concerto in the same key.

Schumann, like many composers before him and quite a few since, was fond of encoding names in musical notation. Bearing in mind that what we call B-natural the Germans call H, you can see that the first four notes of the oboe theme could be taken to spell Chiara, or CHiArA, using those letters that have musical counterparts (C/B/A/A) in this Italian version of Clara's name, a version that occurs in Schumann's fanciful prose writings and, in its affectionate diminutive of Chiarina, in his Carnaval.

Whether or not Schumann intended it as Chiara, this oboe theme dominates the entire movement. When Chiara is transformed into a tender exchange of intimacies between the piano and the clarinet, we come to the most poetic and magical moment in the concerto and, not least, a lovely tribute to Clara's singing tone. And finally, after the sweeping cadenza, part recitative, part a Robert Schumann translation of Bachian polyphony, part flying chords, Chiara becomes a quick march, all pungent off-beat accents and suppressed excitement, and which ends the movement gloriously.

Those are the components or, if you like, the component in diverse guises, but it is Schumann's way of composing with this material that turns it into wonderful music. One has to evoke the two personalities he invented to be his mouthpieces in his writings about music and who in the Davidsbündlertänze and Carnaval actually speak in music itself: enthusiastic, hyperbolic Florestan and meditative, inward Eusebius. Schumann sweeps the listener from mood to mood, from soapbox to pillow, and the pianist is now the most dramatic of protagonists and now the most sensitive of accompanists. And Chiara, if it is she, is the firm frame that holds it all together. If it is indeed Chiara-Clara, it is also a picture of the Schumanns' life together, for it was she who represented order, organization, the frame.

Now the climate shifts. The first movement's impulsive fantasia style gives way to the slower but far-from-slow middle movement of a type invented by Beethoven, small in scale, and an introduction or transition to a much bigger finale. In tone of voice, though, this movement is pure Schumann. It begins and ends with demure conversation between piano and orchestra, but in the middle, Schumann gives us an episode in which the strings sing a passionate song both frank in expression and touchingly contained in sound.

The principal idea of the first movement now reappears to effect the transition into the finale. This movement is robust and joyous but not heavy. In the middle, Schumann puts a theme that sounds as though it is in triple meter at half the tempo, but writes it in the original meter so that it becomes a minefield of syncopations and displaced accents. Schumann celebrates the close of his concerto in a buoyant waltz.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Martin Helmchen with Marc Albrecht and the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra (Pentatone)  |  Hélène Grimaud with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Dresden Staatskapelle (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Martha Argerich with Alexandre Rabinovitch conducting the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (EMI)  |  Murray Perahia with Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Reading: Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer, by Martin Geck (University of Chicago Press)  |  Robert Schumann: Life and Death of a Musician,by John Worthen (Yale University Press)  |  Robert Schumann: Herald of a “New Poetic Age,” by John Daverio (Oxford)  |  Schumann: The Inner Voices of a Musical Genius, by Peter Ostwald (Northeastern University Press)  |  Robert Schumann: The Man and his Music, edited by Alan Walker (Barrie & Jenkins)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Schumann, edited by Beate Perrey (Cambridge University Press)