Composed: 1841, 1845
Length: c. 31 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 6, 1922, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with pianist Harold Bauer
When Robert Schumann was barely 21 and newly, deeply passionate about deep and passionate literature, he wrote in his diary about that which was his true love, “Music, how you disgust me and repel me to death.” This particular madness, although not surprising coming from a young man who suffered from severe, suicidal, ultimately fatal depressive episodes, was not to last. Schumann’s imagination came to the rescue in the form of two characters who were to speak for him as his alter egos in his music and in his publication, the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik: Florestan, the temperamental provocateur, and Eusebius, the poet. The manifestations of these opposite natures are revealed in virtually all of Schumann’s music, including the Piano Concerto.
In terms of literature, if Schumann had ventured a romantic novel, he could not have written a tale more fascinating than the one about his courtship of and marriage to Clara Wieck. It is fictional in outline: Temperamental, gifted young composer in love with his piano teacher's pianist daughter (the romance began when she was 13, he 22); protracted parental opposition to their marriage resulting in forced separations and great unhappiness; finally, an appeal to the courts for permission to marry, which at last was granted. The two were united in 1840, on the eve of Clara’s 21st birthday. Love triumphant.
Until that time, Schumann had composed primarily for the piano. His marriage year was to become the year of song, and only after the outpouring of emotions in some 120 vocal pieces did he turn his hand to compositions in other forms – symphony, chamber music, choral works, and, more of his first love, piano music. Indeed, how could Schumann do other than return to the piano and allow his exuberant, restless fancies to take keyboard flight? Not only was the piano his most idiomatic medium, but he had in his beloved Clara the most splendid and dedicated interpreter anyone could ask for.
Surprisingly, the effusive Piano Concerto is the only full-length piece for piano and orchestra he ever wrote. Yet perhaps he was really wise in not trying to scale the peak reached in the A-minor Concerto. It is, after all, a supreme work of its kind, of whole cloth in its glowing warmth and its exhilarating buoyancy, in its ineffably lovely gentleness and breathless spontaneity.
That such a unified artistic entity as this was not composed in a sudden flash of inspiration seems almost anti-romantic. Remarkably, even though the mental instability that was to prove fatal a decade later manifested itself occasionally, Schumann picked up the thread of a piano and orchestra Fantasy he’d written in 1841 and wove it seamlessly to two new movements. Probably the most inspired and artistically pragmatic of his moves for accomplishing this unity was to devise main themes for movements two and three from transformations of the initial motif of the first movement’s main theme. Clara premiered the work in Dresden on December 4, 1845 and was for a time its sole champion.
In the most positive sense, the spirit of Frau Schumann seems to hover lovingly over its pages, for it is both a gracious and a brilliant piece asking for the kind of pianist the splendid woman must have been: a thoroughly polished artist who did not blush at tenderness nor balk at sentiment, but one who could also dispose of the technical gnarls with elegant aplomb. The Concerto has a beautiful balance of effusiveness and lyricism, and Schumann exploits these elements to the fullest. The tender but ever-so-breathless main theme is introduced by the oboe, after which the piano takes it up. The ideas that follow are diversely characterized, yet they have a strong interrelationship, achieved through thematic transformation and through changes of tempo, meter, and key. A coda in which the main theme has become a quick, spirited march tune with the piano in busy attendance follows on the heels of a vigorous and fanciful cadenza supplied by the composer.
Schumann the tender poet is in full control of the second movement, speaking with a childlike innocence beguiling in its naturalness. Having whispered his intimacies, the composer creates a ravishing, romantic moment as he quietly recalls the first movement's main theme, using it to plunge headlong into the finale.
Dashing, brilliant, cleverly syncopated, soaring and spirited, the last movement reveals the multi-faceted romanticism of Schumann as well and as winningly as anything he ever wrote.
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.