Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann’s only Piano Concerto in A minor proffered a totally new idea of a piano concerto.  In place of fiery virtuosic display, “putting fingers to work and musicianship to sleep”, K. 54 also demanded sensitivity, poise, clarity, and control from the soloist. At the premier, the audience felt cheated without hearing sufficient pianistic brinksmanship. Since this concerto required a different type of pianism it also needed a different kind of audience which would value subtlety, grace, softness, and alert musicianship.  Dominant bombasity and pyrotechnics had been purged. Bravura opportunities were minimized, and more varied demands were made on the soloist. At times, the pianist had to be a good accompanist as well as soloist., evidenced herein when the soloist accompanies a clarinet solo in the first movement. Stardom had to be shared.

Additionally, the orchestra moved from its traditional supportive role to a collaborative position with the soloist. A new parity resulted. . Joseph Kerman noted this change, writing “One aspect of the piano’s virtue is mimesis of an orchestra.  It is a far from a negligible aspect…. The piano can simulate an orchestra; anything the orchestra can do, a piano can do plausibly and often with panache.”

Schumann’s changes resulted in a situation in which the “singularity of the piano” came into question: Was virtuosity the only metric for a piano concerto? Did a successful piano concerto have to be a constant thriller? Liszt went so far as to call the work a “concerto without piano.”  As late as 1856, a London critic praised Schumann’s wife for her loyalty in continuing to play the work, commenting “Clara’s noteworthy efforts to make her husband’s curious rhapsody pass for music.”  From its inception, Schumann was aware of the concerto’s new character and novelty, explaining “My concerto is a compromise between a symphony, a concerto, and a huge sonata.  I see I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos- I must write something else.”

The idea of “something else” had been considered years earlier. In 1839, in the Neue Zeitschrift fur Music Schumann speculated “We must await the genius who will show us in a newer and more brilliant way, how orchestra and piano may be combined; how the soloist, dominant at the keyboard, may unfold the wealth of his instrument and his art, while the orchestra no longer a mere spectator may interweave its manifold facets into the scene. “His concept was first manifested in a single movement Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra written only eight months after Schumann’s marriage in 1840. Specifically, the work was written for Schumann’s wife Clara, who had been sculpted into an excellent pianist by a most ambitious father, and was thoroughly capable of   popularizing her husband’s works. The Fantasy was a flop: publishers turned their backs, and audiences did too. Dormant for a while, the work had yet another destiny

By 1845, family finances were at a critical stage. The Schumann household was filled with screaming children (Clara had birthed eight children in 14 years) and her dowry had run out.  Responding to the situation, Schumann resurrected the Fantasy, added an intermezzo and finale, and grew the earlier piece to full concerto size which Clara could perform.  The composer considered (quite correctly) that a concerto would be a good seller in the romantic period. What he did not consider was that his idea of a concerto and prevailing tastes were far different. His additions resulted in a deeply affecting work which, despite its large scale, never lost its intimate voice. Clara premiered K 54 on January 1, 1846, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Omitting the traditional orchestral introduction, the orchestra sounds a quick chord, igniting a series of brilliant chords cascading from the piano as the curtain raiser. Quickly the main theme emerges from the winds, answered by the piano, and becomes the primary focus of a relaxed interchange between piano and orchestra. This melody also appears in varied form and personality in the succeeding movements. Before the second subject is introduced, a dreamy, introspective is spun by the piano. A more animated second subject is derived from the first. This first theme and its derivations become foundational for this movement, and it emerges as well in the ensuing three.

Schumann’s gentle Intermezzo is an intimate salon piece in simple ternary form.   Its music is filled with romantic tenderness and a lyricism found in abundance in the composer’s character pieces for piano. The first theme is derived in a staccato articulation referencing the first theme of the first movement.  A magical cello and piano dialogue occupies the middle section. The third section references the now familiar first theme, and leads to a highly dramatic conclusion as the theme fades into silence. A horn call, seemingly from a great distance, bridges directly into the vivacious last movement.

In the last movement, the main theme re-emerges returning for a final bow, but changes its rhythm and character.  A new metric current (in which 6/4 is imposed on the ¾ meter) and assertive articulation is re-aligned by snappy rhythmic syncopations.  At times it even assumes a march-like character. Assorted fresh themes emerge in profusion with extensive, decorative figuration.  The concerto concludes in a boisterous mood with brilliant passagework from the soloist and large supporting orchestral chords in a spirited coda. Herein, Schumann fully satisfied the taste and custom of concerto brilliance, but he simply saved it for the finale. Gaining acclaim slowly, the work has earned its place not only as one of the most authentic documents of musical romanticism, but also among the most beautiful concerti in piano repertoire.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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