Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54

I. Allegro affettuoso II. Intermezzo. Andantino grazioso III. Allegro vivace

 

Schumann (1810-1856) is an appealing figure for music historians with a very tidy frame of mind. His career can be neatly divided into discrete periods, each with their own genre: between 1833 and 1839, Schumann wrote only piano music, in 1840 he composed most of his songs, in 1841, he wrote symphonic works, in 1842, chamber music and in 1845, he turned his efforts to contrapuntal techniques. In 1847, he was preoccupied with stage music while 1852 was the year of ecclesiastical compositions. Schumann expanded the boundaries of individual genres and frequently combined them with what were earlier clearly distinct forms: thus he made lyrical small forms and songs parts of symphonies and concertos, or melded the stark structure of the fugue with poetic interludes.

The movement forming the basis of the piano concerto is also the result of a combination of various genres. Schumann sat down to write it in May 1841, but his plan had first surfaced a few years earlier. “It will be a mix of symphony, concerto and Grande Sonate”, he wrote to his fiancée Clara in 1839. Schumann conquered large scale symphonic form with his Symphony no. 1, which he completed not long before, and as a member of the generation succeeding Beethoven, he was also faced with the common problem of how to incorporate lyrical material within the framework of dynamic forms. Few works give a more convincing answer to this conundrum than the first movement of Schumann's piano concerto. Unlike virtuoso concertos, where the aim is to display the technical ability of the soloist, with the orchestra employed as background to what is essentially a circus performance, Schumann melds the piano solo into the symphonic material and he allots both halves – piano and orchestra – equal roles. Indeed, they help each other. The structure of the movement also has its roots in sonata form: there is a group of main themes which are distinct from a group of secondary themes, and although the development section bears a different character from the classical models, launched by a strikingly beautiful passage in A major (dialogue between piano and clarinet), the recapitulation conforms to both classical principals and tonalities. However, its mood and the fusion of the formal sections into one another are incomparably Romantic and Schumannian.

Schumann called this movement his Koncert Fantasie, but it was never performed: despite the success of the Symphony no. 1, three publishers rejected it and it was only performed four years later, when Schumann composed two additional movements, presumably to make it easier to sell. Thus he created a conventional piano concerto. The second movement is an intermezzo, an interlude between the two grand scale outer movements: it is an intimate dialogue between piano and orchestra which follows on without a break to the energetic finale. Following its premiere in Dresden, the concerto was successfully premiered in Leipzig, Prague and Vienna, on each occasion, featuring Clara Schumann as the soloist.