Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor
Over the course of his lifetime Robert Schumann only composed one piano concerto. It was completed in 1845 and premiered in Dresden in December of the same year. Schumann’s wife, Clara Schumann, premiered the concerto. The work is dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller, who was also the conductor of the premiere. Since its inception Schumann’s Piano Concerto has remained one of the staples in Romantic repertoire, with it being performed often around the world.
Schumann had worked on previous fragments of other piano concertos, however none of these were completed. At first, Schumann composed his Phantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra in 1841, and he tried to sell this to publishers, but to no avail. His wife Clara, a virtuoso pianist herself, suggested he should expand the work into a concerto. In 1845, Schumann added the last two movements to complete the work as a concerto.
Initially set into three movements, Schumann often listed the work in two, as the second and third movements play out with no break in between them. However in today’s world, the concerto is more often listed in the three movements.
Movement I – Allegro affetuoso
The origins of the opening movement come from Schumann’s original Phantasie. It’s inspiration comes from the conflict between boisterous Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, two characters that Schumann often used to depict duality. After an energetic flourish from the strings and timpani, the piano jumps straight in with vivacious chords. Set in 4/4 time, the syncopation used in the soloist’s part creates some uneasiness in the melody, which represents Florestan’s boisterous character.
The dreamlike section is introduced and decorated by the woodwind section. The melody uses the notes C-H-A-A, which is in honour of Schumann’s wife, Clara, who premiered both the Phantasie and the Piano Concerto. Schumann uses this section as a central development hub, which sees the melody go through rigorous changes.
Schumann changes the performance directions fairly often to keep the story moving along between the two characters. From the dreamlike section to a peppy animato section, the music moves through a lot of different characteristics. After a dramatic recapitulation section, there is a big cadenza for the soloist, which ties the whole movement together. The energetic coda brings the movement to a close with four big tutti chords.
Movement II – Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso
The much shorter second movement opens with a delicate melody passed between the strings and piano. This movement shows off Schumann’s rich orchestrations and pleasing melodic writing. The musical dialogue between the soloist and orchestra is very important throughout, as it offer a unique effect in the textures created.
This movement shows a glimmer of similarity to that of the opening movement, before quickly jumping into the finale movement without a break.
Movement III – Allegro vivace
Opening with a flourish from the strings before a bold interlude from the piano, the winds prepare a segue into the main A major theme of this movement. The fluctuating time signatures in this movement creates great movement in the music, often flitting between 3/4 , 3/2 and 6/4.
The exciting developments heard in this movement are a testament to Schumann’s melodic writing. The excitement in the music is threaded throughout and really keeps you on the edge of your seat. The extended cadenza builds the tension until the winds signal the start of the much-anticipated coda. The coda section is perhaps the most exciting of the whole movement, with intricate fragments played by the soloist and parts of the orchestra. The concerto comes to its epic conclusion with a reinstatement of the theme before a dramatic ascending piano scale until the final tutti chord.
Although Robert Schumann technically only composed one piano concerto, it has since remained one of his most-beloved and performed works. The tenacity in his writing, especially for the soloist, is perhaps what makes it so attractive to concert pianists. A truly epic concerto and a feast for the ears!
Ⓒ Alex Burns