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Schumann had earlier worked on several piano concerti: he began one in E-flat major in 1828, from 1829-31 he worked on one in F major, and in 1839, he wrote one movement of a concerto in D minor. None of these works were completed.
Already on January 10, 1833, Schumann first expressed the idea of writing a Piano Concerto in A minor. In a letter to his future father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck, he wrote: "I think the piano concerto must be in C major or in A minor." From May 17 to 20 1841, Schumann wrote a fantasy for piano and orchestra, his Phantasie in a minor. Schumann tried unsuccessfully to sell this one-movement piece to publishers. In August 1841 and January 1843 Schumann revised the piece, but was unsuccessful. His pianist wife Clara then urged him to expand it into a full piano concerto. In 1845 he added the intermezzo and allegro vivace to complete the work. It was the only piano concerto that Schumann completed.
The premiere of the first movement (Fantasy) took place on August 13, 1841 in the Leipzig Gewandhaus with the soloist Clara Schumann. The complete 3-movement version was premiered in Dresden on December 4, 1845 again with his wife Clara Schumann on the piano and the dedicatee Ferdinand Hiller as conductor. Less than a month later on January 1, 1846, the concerto was performed in Leipzig under the conductorship of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
After this concerto, Schumann wrote two other pieces for piano and orchestra: the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato in G major (Op. 92), and the Introduction and Allegro Concertante in D minor (Op. 134).
The concerto is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano. With this instrumentation Schumann chose the usual line-up of orchestration in earlyRomantic music for his Piano Concerto in A minor.
The piece, as marked in the score, is in three movements:
There is no break between these last two movements (attacca subito).
The three movement listing is the more common form used.
The duration of the concert is about 30 to 35 minutes, depending on the interpretation.
The main movement of the A minor Concerto has the name Allegro affettuoso, whose origin lay in the one-movement fantasy written by Schuman in 1841 at whose core is the musical development of the conflict between the boisterous Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius, two character's Schuman often used to express the duality of being. The movement is set in 4/4 rhythm.
The piece starts with an energetic strike by strings and timpani, followed by a fierce, descending attack by the piano. This exposition chord is followed by a descending, rhythmically incisive chord progression of the solo piano corresponding to the ideal of the boisterous Florestan.
Only then, the main, dreamlike theme of Eusebius is introduced by the oboe along with other wind instruments. The melody begins with the notes C - H - A - A, which stand for the Italian spelling of the first name CHiArA of Robert Schuman's wife Clara Schumann, who was the soloist at the world premiere of the piano concerto. After its introduction by the woodwinds, the theme is then given to the soloist. Schumann provides great variety with this theme.
In the course of the first movement Schumann varies this theme in many ways. He first offers it in the A minor key of the movement, then we hear it again in major, and we can also hear small snatches of the tune in a very slow, A flat section. The orchestra and especially the clarinet is often used against the piano in this movement: While the solo instrument is dedicated to the main theme of the concerto, the strings begin to intone a Florestan-like, syncopated side thought (bar 41), which becomes more and dominant, until a variation of the Eusebian main theme recurs quietly but urgently.
This is followed by a subsection labeled Animato. At its end Schumann introduces a second theme, which, however, does not reach the significance of the main theme.
Subsequently, the development of the main movement begins in form of a dramatic lament (bar 156). This part almost reaches the position of an independent middle section. In A flat major, the metrically altered main theme is referenced by piano arpeggios. Suddenly, however, chords of the Florestan theme interrupt the peace of the main theme. It comes to a struggle between the two ideals, which shapes the development further with rapid changes of soli and tutti.
With further dramatic progression and the modulation to A minor, the reprise is finally reached and cites the exposition almost tone for tone. The last tense progression brings forth a solo cadenza of monumental size and virtuosity (bar 402). It is undoubtedly the culmination of the movement.
In the coda, a throbbing, mysterious 2/4 rhythm dominates. This is turned into a fierce Davidsbündler-march a little later. The main movement of the concert ends with four tutti chords.
This movement is keyed in F major. The piano and strings open up the piece with a small, delicate tune, which is heard throughout the movement before the cellos and later the other strings finally take the main theme, with the piano mainly used as accompaniment. The movement closes with small glimpses of the first movement's theme before moving straight into the third movement.
The movement opens with a huge run up the strings while the piano takes the main A major theme. Schumann shows great color and variety in this movement. Though it is in 3/4 time, Schumann manipulates it so that the time signature is often ambiguous. (See hemiola.) The piece finishes with a restating of the previous material before finally launching into an exciting finale, and ending with a long timpani roll and a huge chord from the orchestra.
Despite its three movements, the work has retained the character of a fantasy. The basic idea expressed in the work is that of yearning and happiness between two loving people. Schumann musically transforms his fight for Clara in this work. The main theme of the first movement is similar to the melody of the Florestan aria from Beethoven's opera Fidelio. Congruent with Beethoven, Schumann saw this theme as an expression of the intimate conncection between loyalty and the struggle for freedom. In this way the concerto is, like many other of his compositions, based on Schumann's life long concern to fight against philistinism with musical means.
The contemporary reception of the work was consistently positive. Clara Schumann wrote after the premiere: "... how rich in invention, how interesting from the beginning to the end, how fresh and what a beautiful coherent whole!"
Special emphasis was placed on the skilful, colorful and independent orchestral treatment, that would leave room for piano and orchestra alike. The Leipzig Allgemeine Musikzeitung praised the composition on December 31: "because, fortunately, it avoids the usual monotony of the genre, by giving, with great love and care, the obligatory room to orchestra without diminishing the role of the piano, and manages to beautifully link both independent parts together".
The Dresdner Abendzeitung praised the "quite independent, beautiful and interesting orchestral treatment", and recognizes that the "receding of the piano part into the background" could certainly also be seen as progress.
The work may have been used as a model by Edvard Grieg in composing his own Piano Concerto, also in A minor. Grieg's concerto, like Schumann's, employs a single powerful orchestral chord at its introduction before the piano's entrance with a similar descending flourish. Sergei Rachmaninoff in turn used Grieg's concerto as a model for his first Piano Concerto.
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