Piano Concerto

Robert Schumann

Piano Concerto in A minor

Op. 54

Recommended recording

Curated by Mary Elizabeth Kelly, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Robert Schumann followed up his remarkable "year of song" (1840) with another compositional annus mirabilis. 1841 saw the creation of the composer's first works for orchestra, including the Symphony No. 1, Op. 38, the Symphony No. 4, Op. 120 (substantially revised and published a decade later), and the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52. In each of these works, thematic unity among movements is of central importance, an idea widely explored in the Romantic period in guises ranging from the idée fixe of Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (1830) to the leitmotives of Wagner's music dramas.

Schumann's other major work from 1841 is the Fantaisie in A minor for piano and orchestra. Though the Fantaisie as such has ultimately disappeared from the repertoire, it is only because it evolved into the first movement of the composer's Piano Concerto in A minor, completed in 1845. In this year Schumann appended two movements to the revised Fantasie; the composer's wife, the remarkable pianist Clara Wieck Schumann, premiered the result, a complete concerto, in Leipzig on New Year's Day, 1846.

The shifting moods that characterize so much of Schumann's music are clearly evident in the Piano Concerto. Still, as in the composer's contemporaneous works noted above, and despite the interval between the composition of the Concerto's first movement and the remaining two, inter-movement unity is one of the work's primary concerns. There is a quasi-symphonic character to the Concerto, in distinct contrast to the then-prevailing view of the concerto as primarily a vehicle for virtuosic display, exemplified by the concertante works of Franz Liszt and Nicolò Paganini. Indeed, Liszt showed little enthusiasm for Schumann's Concerto and tweaked the composer (who had earlier written a "Concerto Without Orchestra") by referring to it as a "concerto without piano."

Though the work's technical demands are not inconsiderable, they are almost wholly subservient to thematic interest and structural clarity. The Concerto opens with a downward-surging, darkly martial introductory gesture. The first theme, marked by a high-minded dignity, becomes the prime source of melodic material, spawning closely related themes that alternately brood and, in the major mode, provide respite from the sober atmosphere. The development caroms from one mood to the next in almost dizzying fashion, all the while exploring the ambiguities of the themes' various components. Schumann cannily uses the lengthy cadenza as a battleground for further emotional conflict before ending the movement with a decisive return of the lofty first subject.

The second movement, Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso, amply displays Schumann's immanent melodic sense within a spectrum ranging from genial to poetic to lushly yearning. The Allegro vivace finale commences without pause via an affirmative major-key return of the first movement's main theme. In various episodes, Schumann makes striking use of the finale's joyful, upward-leaping theme, as when it becomes the subject of a fugato. Metric and rhythmic ambiguities abound, coloring the dance-like spirit, and the prevailing mood is one of unfettered optimism that ultimately swells to exuberant triumph.