Schumann Piano Concerto in Am, op. 54

The idea of inspiration is an interesting one.
This is the first husband-and-wife couple we’ve featured on the blog, as I mentioned yesterday with Clara’s piano concerto being featured among a few of her husband’s works. Watch the video below and then we’ll chat a bit about this piece.

So, that question of inspiration and intention. We talked in Schumann’s ops. 1 and 2 about his literary style.
As we discussed in yesterday’s article, Clara’s op. 7 was written when she was just a teenager, but by this time, the two were likely already exchanging ideas and sharing compositions.
However, it wasn’t until Schumann’s op. 54 that his own first (completed) piano concerto appears. Could it be said that he gained some inspiration from the light of his life, his dear wife and her piano concerto? It’s possible, but the main point is, as Dame Uchida brought out so well above (I could listen to her [talk or play] all day long), is that she is the sole focus of the piece: the hidden motif of her name, the rhythm of the melody… listening to all of this and feeling Uchida’s passionate explanation of how much Schumann adored his wife makes this a quintessential Romantic piece in every meaning of the word.
Now to intentions, though. This piece was originally a fantasie for piano and orchestra, but Dear Clara later suggested he round it out and go all in for a piano concerto, so he did. It wasn’t originally his intention to write a piano concerto, so I don’t think there’s much association with his wife’s work, even though they both are in Am. Things are just sometimes not what we intend them to be.
There’s more confusion or perplexity about inspiration, as Uchida mentioned, when you consider that Clara wasn’t the muse behind all of her husband’s works (like those from the previous days) because they were written too early for that.
I do have to admit (DA) that this concerto is a very fine one. In speaking with a friend a month or so ago, I panned this piece for being boring and cliche and whatever else. I don’t know what performance of what piece I was listening to that gave me that impression, but I stand
corrected (especially in contrast with Chopin’s previous piano concerto[s]).
The piece is in a three-movement layout… sort of. As a vestige of its fantasy beginnings, the second movement is actually marked as an intermezzo, played without pause leading into the finale, and the composer preferred for it to be listed on concert programs as only two movements, so

1. Allegro affettuoso
2. Andantino and Rondo
instead of
1, Allegro affettuoso
2. Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso 
3. Allegro vivace 
 
Schumann’s previous concertante attempts were in around 1829 and 1839, and it wasn’t until 1841 that he began the fantasy that would later become this work. It seems perhaps the fantasy was only in reference to the first movement, because it was four years later, in 1845, that he added the intermezzo and allegro. While this work is the only completed concerto for piano, he did later write two other works for piano and orchestra (ops. 92 and 134).
The overwhelming feeling in this piece, again (I’m sorry; I usually far prefer Chopin’s works to Schumann, but) in contrast with the Chopin concerto(s), is one of energy and drive and brilliance. Even from the Am beginning (the famous one with the timpani roll that Grieg would later use), there’s a certain power or energy that isn’t melancholy or depressing or stuffy, just dramatic and rich. The use of woodwinds at the beginning is beautiful, and the piano takes the lead. We hear the main theme so clearly, so definitively, and it’s part of what (for me) makes the piece so enjoyable; it’s even presented very cleanly in the cadenza, giving this movement a very solid coherence. Germans, right? The movement finishes in a regal, triumphant, celebratory powerful way, and we’re led to the intermezzo, in F major.
The only intermezzo-ish thing about this movement is perhaps its chamber-like scale and brevity. It has none of the boom or growl of the opening movement, and fulfills the role of a slow movement in a concerto. At first it’s piano and violins both plucking out a tender, quiet melody before cellos join in and the piano becomes far more lyrical (cello and piano in a slow movement? Didn’t we have that yesterday?). It’s really beautiful, but does sound familiar. I can’t quite identify what it makes me think of. The opening theme returns to round out this short but pleasant enough middle movement/intermezzo.
This movement leads directly into the final movement, and the triumphant, regal commanding nature of the first movement returns, almost falling into a march-like rhythm, but the piano is given some time to do virtuosic things. We’ve moved from A minor in the first movement through F major in the intermezzo to a concluding movement in A major and it feels noble and majestic. There are some great epic swells of sound throughout this movement that feel heroically passionate, but never over the top. The piano and horns (or brass) manage to keep a refined delicacy and Romance to the movement. Wikipedia makes note that the movement is in 3/4 time, but manipulated and disguised in such a way that this meter isn’t always obvious.
Also, can I just say that in this third movement alone, it seems kind of obvious to me (without looking at the score) that this perhaps isn’t the “easiest piano concerto to start on” as it seems some people have suggested. There’s no “easy piano concerto,” really, is there? Kabalevsky wrote a student concerto or something. In any case, there’s plenty of rich, real classic, typically Romantic virtuosity in this final movement alone, and while it might not be Brahms or Rachmaninoff, it certainly seems to offer plenty of wow and awe.
It sounds cliche or cheap to say, but in contrast with something like Chopin’s concertos, this piece has a lot of action to offer. The orchestra plays an integral role in the piece, and there are plenty of breathtaking moments in the piece. I’ve actually never heard this one live, but it’s a standard in the concert repertoire, and some audiences may have tired of its presence, but I’d sign up to hear it or the other Schumann’s concerto any day over either Chopin.
It ends triumphantly and powerfully, almost the way it began, with big orchestra sounds and clear, rolling timpani. Does it get any better?
This, I would say, is one of the great Romantic concertos of the time. Sure, there’s Tchaikovsky, there’s Grieg, and it wasn’t until almost half a century later that Rachmaninoff came on the scene, but for one of the solidly Romantic works, it’s this one. Before Tchaikovsky and Grieg and Brahms there was Schumann. Two of them, actually, but this work clearly shows a level of maturity beyond the young Clara Wieck’s work of a thirteen-year-old, impressive though it is.
In any case, that’s the end of our Schumann stretch for now, and after today, we’ll be taking a three-day break before we wrap up our month-long stretch of piano works. It was a long, busy July, but there’s still more to come in August. Three more piano pieces and then we move on to something entirely different. See you then.
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