About Schumann’s Concerto A Minor

Robert and Clara Schumann are a well-known power couple in classical music history. Starting off as close friends drawn to music, they both encouraged and inspired each other in their art. Once wed, the two made a perfect team with Robert’s expert composition and Clara’s elegant interpretations.

Read our program notes to learn more about Schumann’s Concerto A Minor, and how this piece needed equal halves of the couple to become a success. Performances will take place at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall February 2-4, 2023.

What are program notes?

A collection of written commentary with the purpose of introducing the audience to the composer and music. Program notes break down the background and important elements of a piece to enhance appreciation and understand context.

Robert Schumann

Concerto in A Minor for Piano and Orchestra 

Born: June 8, 1810, Zwickau, Germany
Died: July 29, 1856, Endenich, Bonn, Germany
Composed: 1841 to 1845

Premiered: December 4, 1845 in Dresden, with Clara Wieck Schumann as soloist

Most recent Pacific Symphony performance: October 24, 2015 in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with Carl St.Clair conducting

Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano 

Estimated duration: Approximately 31 minutes

The chronology of Schumann’s Piano Concerto is straightforward enough, but the story behind it is not so simple: Schumann’s only piano concerto began as a single-movement work, his Fantasie, composed in 1841. Then, in the spring and summer of 1845, he added two movements to create a complete concerto. His wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck, introduced the concerto at a New Year’s Day concert in Leipzig in 1846.

Looking deeper, we find that the concerto is a touchstone for Schumann’s creative turmoil and eventful marriage, one of the great love stories in music history. Schumann felt drawn to music but was pushed by his family toward a legal career. He was studying at the University of Leipzig when he was drawn into the Wieck family—first as a student of Clara’s father, the revered piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck.

When he began his lessons in 1828, Schumann was 18 and Clara, who was only 9, was a piano prodigy who had already performed publicly. Two years later, Schumann finally won his own family’s approval to prepare for a career in music, and he moved into the Wieck household. Abandoning his law studies hardly ended Schumann’s troubles. His friendship with young Clara seems to have been one of the few bright spots in a life marked by dark moods made worse by deaths in his family and by injuries to his right hand that hindered his playing. He drank heavily. Yet he somehow managed to compose prolifically, especially for the piano. And he wrote incisive, statesmanlike criticism, founding a music magazine that became known as the Neue Zeitschrift fűr Musik.

Clara and Robert’s friendship turned to love, but not before he became romantically involved with another of Friedrich Wieck’s pupils, one Ernestine von Fricken. Even when that entanglement ended, Friedrich Wieck objected strenuously to their engagement and blocked it with every means at his disposal. Clara and Robert finally married in 1840, and Clara, by then a renowned soloist, wanted to play a concerto by her husband—for his sake as well as her own. When his initial attempts at a concerto failed, she recognized that the Fantasie could be part of something larger, and it was at her urging that it became the basis of Schumann’s beautiful Concerto in A Minor.

Schumann’s style of piano composition is often described as mercurial. It seems certain that Clara Wieck, noted for the poetic subtleties of her interpretations, was the perfect pianist for his music. But concertos call for drama as well as poetry, and this one opens with a gesture that has been described as ripping away a curtain: a fusillade of chords from the piano. The boldness of this introduction clearly influenced the young Edvard Grieg in composing his own Piano Concerto in A Minor.

In transitioning from the first movement to the second, we can hear Schumann’s moodiness, which is apparent in the concerto’s extremes of color. In the second movement, an intermezzo, a melody of great delicacy takes shape, with the piano relegated mainly to accompaniment. But in the more energetic third movement, marked allegro vivace, the piano part shows majesty, energy, and variety. The concerto concludes by drawing together the thematic materials we have heard into a cohesive finale, climaxed by a dramatic sounding of timpani and a dramatic chord that echoes through the orchestra.

Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in-chief for The Santa Fe Opera.

About Schumann’s Concerto A Minor
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