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Composed: 1841; 1845

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo keyboard

About this Piece

Robert Schumann married Clara Wieck, the daughter of his piano teacher and herself one of the age’s great pianists, on September 12, 1840. Having gradually given up his ambition to become a professional pianist himself, Robert was happy to yield the virtuoso title to his wife and focus on his activities as a composer.

Before his marriage, Schumann had concentrated exclusively on composing songs and piano works. We can thank Clara for encouraging her husband to try his hand at larger-scale forms such as symphonies, oratorios, and concertos. In a letter dated January 7, 1839, Clara wrote, “Don’t take it amiss if I tell you that I’ve been seized by the desire to encourage you to write for orchestra. Your imagination and your spirit are too great for the weak piano.”

With Clara’s support, Schumann entered one of the most creative periods of his life after their marriage. For five years, he produced large-scale masterwork after large-scale masterwork, including the “Spring” Symphony; the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale; the oratorio Paradise and the Peri; the three String Quartets, Op. 41; and the E-flat Piano Quartet and Quintet. He didn’t neglect the song either – these years produced the Op. 39 and Op. 48 song cycles (the Liederkreis and the Dichterliebe, respectively). Only his output of solo piano music dropped off.

The Piano Concerto bookends these years of manic creativity. It began life as a Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in one movement, completed by Schumann in May 1841. The Fantasy was Schumann’s first completed work for piano and orchestra; he had made four earlier attempts at writing a piano concerto, but these were all abandoned. In 1845, Schumann added a slow movement and finale to a revised version of the Fantasy to complete a three-movement concerto.

Clara’s importance to the Concerto’s gestation should not be underestimated. Not only did she encourage Robert to try his hand at writing for orchestra, but she also may have provided a model. Her own Piano Concerto, also in A minor, was written between 1832 and 1835, and Schumann had orchestrated the finale during late 1834 and early 1835. The works have more in common than their key – both modulate into A-flat major for a lengthy, contrasting slower section in the first movement, and Robert uses a four-note motive from the finale of Clara’s concerto prominently in the coda of his own concerto’s first movement.

The completion of Robert’s Concerto in mid-July 1845 was followed by total physical collapse and debilitating worry for its composer. He had to cancel appearances at a Beethoven festival in Bonn and spend the summer and fall resting. He did manage to pull himself together long enough to attend the work’s premiere in Dresden on December 4, 1845, where Clara was the soloist and Ferdinand Hiller conducted.

The Concerto opens with the revised version of the 1841 Fantasy. The movement adheres loosely to the strictures of the sonata-allegro (exposition-development-recapitulation), but it also retains the free-wheeling character of the original Fantasy (the A-flat andante between the exposition and the development is a good example of this). After a long cadenza that challenges the soloist’s expressive and technical abilities (as any good cadenza should), the movement ends with a martial coda.

The brief intermezzo slow movement relaxes the tension after the vigorous close of the allegro. Schumann surrounds pointed, crystalline writing for the piano in a dream-like haze of strings in a movement that is among his most purely beautiful creations. This frames a central section comprised of a dialogue for the soloist and the cellos.

The intermezzo leads directly into the finale without a pause. The movement’s opening theme is a major-key reworking of the first movement’s main theme, its nobility nicely contrasted with the more playful character of the syncopated second theme. As in the first movement, Schumann approaches form with great freedom, with a new theme introduced by oboes and piano later in the finale. A long coda, impulsive and irresistible, ends Schumann’s Concerto, one of the most accomplished and unique in the repertory, with three minutes of unadulterated perfection.

— John Mangum