Concert Notes

Schumann’s Piano Concerto

Notes by TŌN keyboard player Neilson Chen

Schumann’s piano pieces, including the only piano concerto that he ever composed, are still among the most popular compositions in the repertoire. In the early stages of his career as a composer, he mostly wrote songs and piano solo music, always being the pianist to champion his works. It was not until his marriage to Clara Wieck, the daughter of his most influential teacher, Friedrich Wieck, and with her advice, that Schumann started to write some larger-scale compositions.

Schumann composed this concerto in two stages throughout a four-year period. In 1841, he composed a Phantasie for piano and orchestra. Upon completion, Clara performed two private run-throughs of the piece, and commented that the format was a new generation of concerto that Robert Schumann had been hoping for another genius composer to fulfill. The Phantasie ended up becoming the first movement of his concerto, after he made minor revisions to it and added the remaining two movements in 1845. 

In earlier piano concerti, the orchestra always took a leading role from the beginning, followed by the soloist playing the same melody as the orchestra opening part. In Schumann’s piece, he decided to showcase the soloist more: the beginning of the first movement is introduced by the soloist with descending chords. Also, more dialogue between piano and orchestra can be heard throughout the entire concerto. Not all composers agreed about the revolutionary changes of piano concerto that Schumann made. Liszt criticized the new format as a “concerto without piano”.

The second movement is a dream-like intermezzo, where we can hear Schumann’s genius as a song composer. Compared with the vigorous feeling of the first movement, the second presents a version of a “song without words” in which the pianist acts as a singer, and the orchestra accompanies the soloist as a piano would in Schumann’s songwriting.

The intermezzo leads into the last movement without a pause. It opens with the soloist presenting a joyful version of the principle theme, which is related to the main theme from the opening movement. With the second theme, dotted syncopation changes the mood slightly, but the entire last movement still provides a triumphant feeling and the concerto concludes with a brilliant and thrilling dance-like symphonic coda.