ROBERT SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54

Robert Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810, and died in Endenich, near Bonn, on July 29, 1856. Robert Schumann began work on what became his single piano concerto in mid-May 1841, at which time he called it Fantasy in A minor; the rest came four years later, from May 1845 to July 16 that year. Clara Schumann played the work at its first performance in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on New Year’s Day 1846; Ferdinand Hiller conducted. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons in pairs, as also horns and trumpets, plus timpani and strings.

The first movement of Schumann’s Piano Concerto arose as part of a great outburst of orchestral music that he produced in the first half of 1841, shortly after his marriage to Clara Wieck, in order to demonstrate his capacity of dealing with the most substantial musical form of the day. Between January 23 and June, he composed the First Symphony, the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale in E, a Fantasy in A minor for piano and orchestra, and the Symphony in D minor published ten years later as the Fourth. Though he originally planned the Fantasy as a single, self-sufficient movement, he returned to it four years later and used it as a springboard for a full-scale three-movement concerto, one of the finest to come after Beethoven.

Schumann’s Concerto avoided the major trend of his time: that of being a work composed by a virtuoso primarily—even solely—to show off the soloist’s technical dexterity. Ignoring the examples of the violinist Paganini and pianists like Hummel and Thalberg, Schumann returned to the classical balance of Mozart and Beethoven, though in a new romantic mode. His Concerto calls for a virtuoso player, but it never parades the difficulties for the mere astonishment of the audience, but rather for expressive purposes.

The piano is, of course, the pre-eminent participant in the Concerto; but equally wonderful is the variety of chamber music textures that Schumann finds in the orchestra, wherein orchestral soloists or small groups take it upon themselves to intertwine with the pianist or to extend or contradict the piano’s musical ideas. Following the opening outburst of dotted chords tossed off by the fistful, Schumann presents the principal—indeed, almost the only—thematic idea in the movement, a pensive lyric melody that begins with three descending notes. That melody comes back in many guises—in C major as the “second theme,” in A-flat to start the development with the air of an intimate sonata for clarinet and piano, and finally, after the cadenza, in a sped-up march rhythm for a stirring close.

Schumann called the slow movement an “Intermezzo,” and it is, indeed, a change-of-pace interlude between the two large outer movements, filled with delicate and pensive touches and another example of his way of creating a new melody (the yearning second subject) out of a tiny figure heard at the climax of the movement’s opening phrase. As the Intermezzo runs its course, distant recollections of the concerto’s opening theme suddenly explode into an exuberant rondo based on the main theme of the first movement. It is, in part, Schumann’s rhythm that keeps this music perpetually fresh, and the most striking rhythmic passage in the piece (and the trickiest) comes at the second theme of the finale, where rests create the effect of one broad bar of 3/2 time in the place of two bars of 3/4. Schumann’s sense of scale and proportion never deserts him, and the close of the last movement is at once shapely in form and irresistible in its verve. —© Steven Ledbetter