Grieg: Concerto in A minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 16
Edvard Hagerup Grieg
BORN: June 15, 1843. Bergen, Norway
DIED: September 4, 1907. Bergen
COMPOSED: June 1868 through early 1869. Grieg revised the work in 1872, 1882, 1890, and 1895
WORLD PREMIERE: April 3, 1869, Copenhagen. Edmund Neupert was soloist and Holger Simon Paulli conducted the Orchestra of the Royal Theatre
US PREMIERE: February 21, 1874. B. Courlaender was the soloist and Asger Hamerik conducted the orchestra of the Peabody Institute at the Academy of Music in Baltimore
INSTRUMENTATION: Solo piano, 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings
DURATION: About 30 mins
THE BACKSTORY Edvard Grieg was not at his most comfortable when writing in large classical forms. His Four Symphonic Dances are as close as he came to a proper symphony (apart from a very early student exercise) and he composed only five sonatas (one for piano, one for cello, three for violin) and two string quartets (of which the first, a student work, is lost; of a third string quartet he finished only two movements). Grieg’s ultra-popular Piano Concerto therefore stands as an exception in his catalogue, but even its very protracted creation testifies to its composer’s difficulty in coming to terms with a large-scale structure.
He was certainly trained in the textbook forms, since he left his native Norway to study from 1858 to 1862 at the Leipzig Conservatory, a destination for many international music students of the time and a sturdy source of traditional learning when it came to musical fundamentals and composition. Although in his later years Grieg would speak of the Leipzig Conservatory in unflattering terms, the four years he spent there were undeniably important to his development thanks to his work with such eminent teachers as Ignaz Moscheles for piano and Carl Reinecke for composition. His piano teacher during his upper-class years there was Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, who had been a friend of Mendelssohn’s and Schumann’s and who instilled in Grieg a particular passion for the music of the latter. Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform her husband’s Piano Concerto and for decades he continued to cite that concert as a deeply affecting musical experience. In a 1903 article in The Century magazine, Grieg wrote of that concerto: “Inspired from beginning to end, it stands unparalleled in music literature and astonishes us as much by its originality as by its noble disdaining of an ‘extravert, virtuoso style.’ It is beloved by all, played by many, played well by few, and comprehended in accordance with its basic ideas by still fewer—indeed, perhaps by just one person—his wife.” In an article published in 1905 by the American journal The Independent, Grieg recalled that he was so captivated by that piece that he traded the only manuscript of his early String Quartet (which he considered mediocre) in order to acquire a copy of the Schumann score:
One day a fellow student who admired my creative efforts led me into temptation. He had a complete score of Schumann’s piano concerto, which he had written out himself, and which at that time had not yet been published except for a piano reduction and separate orchestral parts. “If you will give me your quartet,” he said one day, “I will give you the score of Schumann’s concerto.” I could not resist the offer. I still think with secret dread about the fact that my abortive early work very likely still exists somewhere in one of the countries of southern Europe.
Possibly Grieg was embroidering his tale, or at least had his chronology off, since shortly after he returned to Bergen as a newly minted Leipzig Conservatory graduate he rented a performance space in which to present a concert that included that very String Quartet in D minor. But at least his reminiscence accurately suggests his infatuation with the music of Schumann and, specifically, of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. It is perfectly normal for audience members hearing Grieg’s Piano Concerto to remark on how very much it reminds them of Schumann’s Piano Concerto—in both cases in the key of A minor, in both cases representing the composer’s only full-fledged entry in the genre. The similarities continue at the level of specifics: both begin with a wallop from the orchestra and a descending flourish from the piano, leading to the hushed enunciation of the principal theme by the orchestra (stressing woodwinds). . . . and on and on.
THE MUSIC And yet, it would not be accurate to characterize Grieg’s Concerto as a mere parody of Schumann’s. Without trying to hide its admiration of its model, the Grieg is also a work of considerable originality, displaying the uniqueness of its composer’s own voice. In that opening volley from that piano, for example, we hear a three-note motif that is repeated seven times as the music cascades downward through several octaves. This particular three-note motif is widely viewed as Grieg’s melodic fingerprint. The motif plays a prominent role in Norwegian folk music, and it certainly was part of Grieg’s musical DNA, showing up—sometimes in the foreground, sometimes not—in a great many of his compositions. Also unmistakable in its Griegian sound is the folk-inflected finale, the details of which were particularly admired by Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Liszt, in fact, offered Grieg some advice about orchestral scoring; and although Grieg adopted some of those suggestions, he ended up weeding out most of them as he returned to revise this concerto over nearly three decades.—James M. Keller
This note previously appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic and is reprinted with permission. © New York Philharmonic