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


BORN: June 8, 1810. Zwickau, Saxony (Germany)

DIED: July 29, 1856. Asylum at Endenich, near Bonn

COMPOSED: Begun late May, completed July 31, 1845, drawing partly on material composed in 1841

WORLD PREMIERES: The first movement was originally conceived as a stand-alone Concert Phantasie, which was first played in a private run-through by Clara Schumann and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Felix Mendelssohn conducting, on August 13, 1841. The complete 3-movement work was premiered on December 4, 1845, in Dresden, with Clara Schumann as soloist and with Ferdinand Hiller (the work’s dedicatee) conducting

US PREMIERE: March 26, 1859. Sebastian Bach Mills was soloist, with Carl Bergmann and the New York Philharmonic, at Niblo’s Gardens in New York City

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—December 1917. Harold Bauer was soloist, with Alfred Hertz conducting. MOST RECENT—April 2017. Igor Levit was soloist, with Fabio Luisi conducting

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Apart from the many other roles she filled in Schumann’s life, his wife Clara (whom he married in 1840) became his chief intermediary vis-à-vis the piano. In 1829 he had begun experimenting with a chiroplast, a mechanism pianists once used to equalize the strength of their fingers, and by the beginning of 1830 the middle finger of his right hand was reacting with numbness. Later that year he began piano lessons with Friedrich Wieck (Clara’s father). Schumann reported practicing as long as seven hours per day. This double dose of physical stress—reckless application of a mechanical device and simple overplaying—led to no good. By the autumn of 1831 Schumann was trying to restore his finger control through electric shocks, dietary experiments, and other unconventional methods. Nothing helped, and by the end of 1832 he gave up hope, declaring his finger incurably lame.

He was no longer able to champion his own works at the keyboard, but soon he would have Clara, who doubtless played his music more persuasively than he ever could have himself. Schumann viewed the genre of the concerto as something of a crossroads; in 1839, he had written to Clara: “Concerning concertos, I’ve already said to you that I can’t write a concerto for virtuosi and have to think of something else.” At that time, piano concertos were nearly always what we would consider lightweight vehicles for showmanship. In 1839 Schumann published an essay on the subject of piano concertos, in which he expounded on the challenge confronting the genre: “[The] separation of the piano from the orchestra is something we have seen coming for some time. . . . [W]e must await the genius who will show us in a newer and more brilliant way how orchestra and piano may be combined, how the soloist, dominant at the keyboard, may unfold the wealth of his instrument and his art, while the orchestra, no longer a mere spectator, may interweave its manifold facets into the scene.”

That much-awaited genius would be Schumann himself, but the breakthrough did not come easily. Between 1827 and 1839 he made four stabs at piano concertos, but he left all of them in fragmentary form. His quest to find how his musical ideals might work in a piano concerto began in earnest in May 1841, when he composed a one-movement Concert Phantasie (as he spelled it) for Piano and Orchestra. It received two private run-throughs that August, with Clara as soloist. She reported in her diary: “Carefully studied, it must give the greatest pleasure to those who hear it. The piano is most skillfully interwoven with the orchestra; it is impossible to think of one without the other.” That, however, was the last the Phantasie was heard, and Schumann’s attempts to publish it came to naught.

But the Phantasie was too good to abandon, and in the summer of 1845 Schumann set about revising it into the first movement of a full-scale concerto. What he produced was not, in fact, a highly virtuosic piece—which is to say that, although great interpreters find much to explore in it, its demands are not overwhelmingly situated in the fingers themselves. Early listeners were struck, as Clara had been, by the extent to which the piano and the orchestra interacted, as opposed to the more standard turn-taking of the forces in standard virtuoso concertos of the day. This is a supremely “symphonic” concerto in the democratic way in which the soloist and the orchestra pursue their unified intent. Despite its lack of superficial razzle-dazzle, Schumann’s only full-fledged Piano Concerto quickly became one of his most popular pieces.

THE MUSIC  The first volley is a dramatic descending flourish on the heels of the orchestra’s opening unison note. We might expect that the flourish is nothing more than a call-to-attention prelude, but it will return often in the course of the movement and will be alluded to even beyond. The principal theme, however, is more sedate and mysterious, articulated in tandem by oboe and bassoon immediately following the piano’s flourish. The piano repeats the melody, and then moves on to a deep-voiced secondary theme with first violins doubling the tune. Composers past and future haunt the music to this point: Schumann adored Beethoven, who had made much of telescoping soloist and orchestra at the beginnings of his Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos; Grieg, whose own Piano Concerto (1868) begins as practically a parody of Schumann’s opening; Tchaikovsky in the hand-doubled textures of the piano’s preludial barrage; even Rachmaninoff, still farther in the future but (to us) inescapably present in the menacing depths and thrusting syncopation of the secondary theme.

Often concertos are plotted first with an orchestral exposition and then with a second exposition in which the soloist plays the leading role. Here Schumann dispenses with the orchestral exposition, a move consistent with his goal of underscoring the connectedness of the piano and the orchestra and characteristic of the tight structure of everything in this piece. A particularly magical moment arrives with the beginning of the development section. The exposition has ended with the full orchestra’s blustery fanfares. These die away, at which point surprising harmonic and rhythmic modulations make the principal theme even more dreamy, with solo clarinet responding over a background of hushed strings. The reverie is rudely interrupted with the piano’s flourish. The recapitulation is worked out in generally traditional terms as it leads to the magnificent cadenza. This two-minute expanse, entirely written out by Schumann, is not approached as a dazzling passage to show off the soloist’s virtuoso qualities but rather provides the composer an opportunity to explore his material with the unaccompanied piano. At the cadenza’s conclusion the principal theme (in oboes, clarinets, and bassoons) appears yet again, restyled into quick, hopping form in an accelerated tempo.

When Schumann returned to his Phantasie after nearly four years, he may have planned initially to expand it by only one further movement. On June 27, 1845, Clara wrote in her diary: “Robert has added a beautiful last movement to his Phantasie in A minor so that it has become a concerto, which I mean to play next winter. I am very glad about it, for I always wanted a great bravura piece from him.” The movement to which she referred was surely what we know as the concerto’s finale. The Intermezzo is in no way a “bravura piece,” and it seems to have come to Schumann as an afterthought. A self-effacing simplicity fills this Intermezzo, which opens and closes with a Mendelssohnian “song without words,” full of memorable contour but ultimately slight. The central section of the movement is given over to a more passionate span in which the cellos sing a rapturous melody, the piano decorating it from above. Imagine it as a balletic pas de deux, but with piano and cellos instead of dancers.

After a return of the Intermezzo’s main section Schumann does a bit more telescoping in which a descending fanfare figure derived from the principal theme of the first movement alternates with a falling figure in the piano, vaguely recalling the soloist’s opening volley. This ushers us into the exhilarating finale. We are treated to an irresistible interplay of melodies, and to a reluctance on the part of the piano to let the composition end.—James M. Keller