Date of Composition: 1845 Duration: 21 minutes
This work was Robert Schumann’s first piano concerto, the best of the lot, and deservedly one of the most popular in the repertoire. He composed in almost all of the common genres and, notwithstanding his success in the larger forms, did perhaps his most respected work in song and piano literature. Known—at least during his lifetime—almost as much for his distinguished career as music critic and essayist, even today his analyses and commentaries lend valuable insights into the music of his milieu and times. He was a formidable pianist and his contributions to the piano stand with those of Schubert, Chopin, and Brahms in artistic significance.
Schumann was a Romantic to the core as evidenced by the deep emotional feeling imbued in his works by his great appreciation for fine poetry in his song settings, and by his ability to create unique and profound art in the briefest of music moments. Yet, withal, he had great respect for the clarity, balance, and formal integrity so characteristic of the music of Classicism. It must be admitted, however, that to some degree his deep passions and emotional self-indulgences can be seen as aspects of a personality that ultimately broke down in the psychoses and pathologies that led to his early death in an institution. He was happy early on, however, and the years of his early marriage to Clara brought forth masterworks in spades, as his mind focused extraordinarily in narrow directions. He wrote primarily piano music during the 1830s, over 125 songs in 1840 (he called it his “year of song”), symphonic music in 1841, chamber music in 1842, and so on.
The A minor piano concerto stems from the year of symphonic music, 1841, and originally took the form of a single movement for piano and orchestra, which he entitled a Phantasie. It almost resembles a miniature concerto in one movement, for each of its three main sections—unlike the norm typical of usual first-movement form—has its own character and tempo. Moreover, he crafts most of the movement from essentially one idea (some say a kind of musical anagram of a name for Clara). In the middle section he recasts the opening theme into the major mode, in a kind of nocturnal mood. The last section takes its course in yet a new mood, but with reference to the opening theme. After the première of the work in that form, in the same year he sought unsuccessfully for a publisher. Failing to find one, he put it away, but returned to the composition almost four years later, while recovering in Dresden from severe depression, exhaustion, and a variety of phobias. Deciding to remake the Phantasie into a regular piano concerto with the usual three movements, he added to it a slow movement and a finale in 1845. In that form it was published the next year, and as they say, the rest is history. The work reflects Schumann’s deep suspicions of empty virtuoso bombast so often characteristic of contemporary piano works. While a document of true romantic feeling and expression, and certainly not without its moments of formidable technical challenges, it is a work of romantic taste of the highest order. Some elements of the first movement have been mentioned and further notice should be given of the delightful and solicitous writing for solo woodwinds that engage the piano soloist. The Intermezzo of the second movement gracefully explores a variety of reflective moods and moves without pause into the buoyant finale. This last movement treats the theme of the first movement in the major mode, varying it constantly—both procedures common to the romantic period. In its midst, the orchestra takes a shot at a fugue-like passage—definitely a relic of the distant past of J.S. Bach. But not surprisingly, for at the time of the composition of this movement the composer and Clara had just finished a series of preludes and fugues in that old Baroque style. The dance-like theme hurdles along merrily, alternating with excursions to contrasting materials, before ending jubilantly. We’re more than fortunate that the early indifference to this ingratiating work led Schumann to flesh it out in such an endearing fashion, and it reminds us of the happier moments in a truly gifted artist’s bittersweet life.
Program Notes by William E. Runyan
Performed by the Fort Collins Symphony on the Pure Gems concert, featuring guest artist Sara Davis Buechner, November 2019, alongside Carl Maria von Weber’s Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn Overture, Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, and Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn.