“A woman must not wish to compose… there never was one able to do it.”
Well, the woman who said that certainly could.
A minor piano concertos.
What comes to mind? Most likely Schumann and Grieg. After all, there’s some tenuous connection between these two pieces, is there not? While it might only be the very opening and some estimations of the general style of Grieg’s concerto after Schumann, those two are the most famous. There’s an unnumbered Mendelssohn piano concerto and Hummel’s “proto-Romantic” second piano concerto both also in A minor, but what about the other Schumann?
That’s what we’re doing today. I have not managed to get around to her other early works, but this as an op. 7 is the lowest-numbered concerto of any we’ve discussed this month, and truly, honestly, it is outstanding. It also is in A minor, but there are no other parallels or connections to the previously mentioned works, except that when Grieg heard Robert Schumann’s piano concerto, it was Clara he heard playing it.
This piece, perhaps more accurately, should be listed as Clara Wieck’s piano concerto, as she was only thirteen years old when she began to compose it (and I’ll refer to her in this article as such to avoid confusion). I’ve stuck it here among her husband’s stretch of only three works for a few reasons:
- It falls nicely in a chronological place.
- Her husband only had three works I could talk about.
- It’s an incredible composition.
- Schumann helped the young girl with some of the orchestration before he knew she was to be his wife.
- Who else but these two people would be more appropriate to include as companion composers?
The Utah Symphony Orchestra’s website has a wonderful write-up on the piece.
The piece is in three movements:
1. Allegro maestoso2. Romanze- Andante non troppo, con grazia
3. Finale- Allegro non troppoEvery time I listen to it, I’m amazed at how really spectacular it is, the balance Wieck showed in emotional content, structure, daring, making for one of the most exciting, satisfying piano concertos I’ve ever heard. Really. Also because it’s not Grieg or Schumann or Chopin or Rachmaninoff. It’s like that nice quiet cafe that serves not the best food, but really good food, and it’s charming because it’s never packed, off the beaten path. This is that gem of a concerto.
The first movement opens Romantically, richly and dramatically, only slightly removed from a march. The piano enters rather shortly thereafter with just a few flourishes, the kind that might make you think we were jumping into a Liszt-like cadenza, but no. The orchestra gets a few moments to extend their introduction and then the piano enters, this time to stay, and its entrance is
no delicate, weak, tender thing, but a true, towering Romantic entrance, the kind of powerful virtuosity one would expect from a seasoned, famous, talented composer like Liszt, not a young girl. It’s incredible. After this, the piano (so perfectly) picks up the theme that the orchestra entered on, with only the lightest, most tactful of piano accompaniment (think Chopin concerto, but not that unnecessary). The kernel from which this one movement develops gives the whole thing unity and focus. The balance of new contrasting material and adherence to the opening content is perfect. We are never lost, but neither are we bored. The piano swells to a big, thundering height, the kind that would lead one to expect a cadenza, but no. Instead, she rests, giving the spotlight back to the orchestra (let it be known the first and second movements the young Wieck orchestrated herself, and incredibly well I might add). They round out most of the rest of the movement. It feels like we’re getting out of the development section now, as familiar themes return, but the ingenious Wieck does an amazing thing. Instead of giving us a 6/4 chord and giving the piano its cadenza at the end of the first movement, the piano’s entrance slips us right into the second movement, the romanze.
The immediately noticeable thing about this movement is its stunning simplicity and beauty. At first, it’s the pianist by herself, with a tender, very clear, simple melody that is beyond charming. There’s some ornamental filigree stuff among the lyricism, and then, as if it couldn’t get any more beautiful, the same melody is passed to a solo cello with piano accompaniment, an almost independent, but still all the while quite well-behaved accompanist. It’s amazing. Somehow the overwhelming beauty here still manages to avoid that sickeningly-sweet, cliche Romanticism, and one is left wishing she’d written at least another concerto or four for piano. Really incredible stuff. The piano accompaniment continues after the cello has disappeared, and the entry of brass instruments signals the beginning of the final movement.
Again, the piano is pretty naked at the beginning, with only some strong accented figures given to orchestra. The overwhelming tone is one of gypsy, Slavic, Polish music, perhaps a polonaise, and this movement alone accounts for about half the length of the concerto, the previous two movements making up only about 12 minutes of material. Some of my reading material has referred to this movement as a rather poorly-written rondo, or more specifically a rondo with poor distinction between the themes, thereby making it a “set of grimly glittering variations.” This was originally the only movement of the piece the young Wieck had written, and the one in which her future husband assisted in orchestrating. Maybe this is where she falters, with a larger scale more complicated structure, but honestly, it matters not to me. Be it a rondo, a theme-and-variations, sonata-rondo form, whatever it is or whatever she wanted it to be, it doesn’t get boring. There are exciting moments where low brass enter with the polonaise subject over timpani and orchestra, followed by strings, and at each turn it sounds fresh. There are a few moments where one forgets about the piano, but even that is maybe a good sign. For me, it says this writing is quite effective and is at least going somewhere. But it’s not long before the piano reenters. The end of the movement gets busier and there’s more storm and tension than at any previous point. While it might sound a bit messy, it’s perhaps a quick way to add an extra dash of drama and suspense without going the as-of-yet untapped depths of Brahmsian scope.
The opening movement comes to mind, if not in musical content, at least in the emotional: a slightly bittersweet, but also powerful, but also bright atmosphere exists. There seems (at least to my ear) never to be an actual cadenza proper in the piece, but as the movement reaches its end, there are some increasingly virtuosic passages, again, almost bewildering that they came from a thirteen-year-old girl. Does one hear just briefly there for a moment the first threads of what would become her husband’s concerto? I thought I did. The last minute is about as close as we get to a cadenza, and it ends with a perfectly crunchy, satisfying commanding finish. If the final movement had a misstep or two, it completely recovered.
I feel this piece is head and shoulders above any (of the two) concerto(s) Chopin ever wrote. For one, it’s succinct, at just over twenty minutes, there’s not a ton of weight for the piece to have to hold up, unlike (again) Brahms, with the challenge of the piece, like sections of a bridge having to support their own weight but also serve a purpose along the way. Chopin’s shorter piano concerto is still over a half hour long (which isn’t long for a piano concerto, but that one is certainly long enough), and part of the advantage in Wieck’s composition is that the first two movements don’t drag on. They have their instant charms and very clear direction, but they also know when to quit, and when they do, they do it inventively. The third movement perhaps could have benefited from a little bit more variation or a clearer rondo structure, if that in fact is what it was supposed to be, but even then, it’s captivating, solidly-written music, and it’s a joy to listen to each time.
I would take this work over a Chopin concerto any day, but unfortunately it’s lost its place in the repertoire, it seems. More than one article stated that the piece had its heyday in the 19th century, and I believe it deserves it. There’s a youthful vigor balanced with a precocious wisdom embodied in the piece, and anyone unfamiliar with it I think would quickly find it a worthwhile concert piece; I don’t know how you couldn’t enjoy this.
So that’s all we have for Miss Clara Wieck for now, but if this concerto is any indication of her compositional abilities, I certainly need to investigate more of her works, but alas, that won’t happen this year.
Can you guess what’s on the program for tomorrow?