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Piano Concerto A minor, Op. 54

About the Work

Robert Schumann
Quick Look Composer: Robert Schumann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: James Gaffigan, conductor / Ingrid Fliter, piano, plays Schumann Jan. 19 - 21, 2012
© Paul Horsley

Before 1840 Robert Schumann had made his contribution largely through the keyboard, with works that revolutionized the musical language of his day. "My highest wish is that Robert should compose for orchestra," wrote Clara Wieck in her diary in 1839, the year before their marriage. "His imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano. ... His compositions are all orchestral in feeling." The year 1840 was crucial to Robert and Clara for several reasons, most notably because it was the year that the couple finally won three-year court battle against Herr Wieck, who opposed their marriage. They were married, and Robert's first response to his new conjugal happiness was a passionate flood of song, including such masterworks as the Dichterliebe and the Liederkreis sets, Opp. 24 and 39.

            Finally in 1841, Clara succeeded in wooing him into the symphonic genre. The first fruits of this labor were sketches for an aborted Symphony in C minor; later in the year Robert completed the Symphony in B-flat, which we now know as the "Spring," and worked on the first version of the Symphony in D minor. Anxious to please his new bride - who was one of Europe's most respected pianists - he next composed a Phantasie in A minor for piano and orchestra. Clara was delighted with the piece that would, later to become the A-minor Concerto's first movement; it was clearly written with Clara's singular virtuosity in mind. In 1845 Schumann decided to add two movements onto the dynamic  Phantasie, and make it into a more marketable piano concerto. He completed the third movement - a dashing Allegro vivace in the key of A major - then worked out a lyrical slow movement in time for Clara to perform the whole Concerto in Leipzig, on January 1, 1846, with Robert at the podium. The piece was published that year and rapidly gained popularity. "I am very glad about it," Clara wrote of the concerto upon first acquaintance, "for I always wanted a great bravura piece by him."

            The Concerto's opening Allegro affettuoso begins with a jolting cascade of dotted chords in the piano that introduces the main theme, which is played espressivo by the oboe and first bassoon. At the theme's core is the descending three-pitch motif 3-2-1, Beethovenian both in its bare-bones simplicity and in the relentless rigor with which it is "hammered out" motivically. A more vigorous tune, presented by full orchestra, presents a counterpoise to the melancholy strains of the first theme. The thematic material of the Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso also grows partly from the opening theme of the Allegro, and appears here in a reworked inversion. The Allegro vivace, which follows without pause, is a virtuosic piece in A major, virtually Mendelssohnian in its lilting eighth-note motion.