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Classics on Sunday: Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op 54

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THE German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) completed his only piano concerto in 1845. It was premiered in Dresden with his wife Clara as the soloist.

I wonder if this work has been overshadowed by Grieg’s 1868 Piano Concerto, also in A minor and which also starts with a dramatic piano flourish. To me this is the superior piece.

Schumann was born in Zwickau and began to compose at the age of seven. His father, who had encouraged his musical aspirations, died in 1826 when Schumann was 16, and under family pressure he started to study law at the University of Leipzig. However, he focused on writing songs and novels. He also began to study piano with Friedrick Wieck, a well-known piano teacher. He had serious ambitions to become a concert pianist but a chronic hand injury put an end to that, and he concentrated on composition from then on.

In the winter of 1832, at age 22, Schumann conducted some of his work at a concert given by Wieck’s daughter Clara, then aged 13 but already a noted pianist. Schumann’s mother reportedly said to Clara, ‘You must marry my Robert one day.’ And indeed a romance developed when Clara was 15. Her father did not see it in the same way as Schumann’s mother, and forbade his daughter to see Schumann again.

Clara went from success to success. At 16 she premiered her own piano concerto, Op 7. 

Although her father tried to keep Clara and Schumann apart by organising lengthy tours and supervising her day and night, the couple met in secret, often for only a few minutes, and became secretly engaged in August 1837, when Clara was 18. They went to court to fight for her right to marry without her father’s consent, and eventually gained a ruling in their favour. They married on September 12, 1840, one day before her 21st birthday. This was presumably to make a point, because once Clara turned 21 she no longer needed her father’s consent.

At this point Clara was the famous and successful one of the couple, while 30-year-old Schumann was still struggling for recognition. The marriage unlocked something in him – before, he had written only solo piano works, but in the year after he wrote around 170 songs. Clara encouraged him to write symphonic music, noting in her diary: ‘It would be best if he composed for orchestra; his imagination cannot find sufficient scope on the piano . . . His compositions are all orchestral in feeling . . . My highest wish is that he should compose for orchestra – that is his field! May I succeed in bringing him to it!’

His first success in the field came a few months after his marriage with his ‘Spring’ Symphony, Op 38, sketched in four days from 23 to 26 January 1841 and orchestrated by 20 February. The premiere took place under the baton of Schumann’s friend Felix Mendelssohn on 31 March 1841 in Leipzig.

Just over a month later, Schumann began work on a Phantasy for piano and orchestra, again working with great speed and completing it in ten days. It was first played through during a rehearsal for his Spring Symphony on 13 August 1841, with Clara, two weeks away from giving birth to their first child, at the piano. In her diary she wrote: ‘I played it twice and found it wonderful! When properly rehearsed, it is certain to give audiences the greatest pleasure. The piano is superbly woven together with the orchestra – you cannot conceive of one without the other.’

Despite many attempts, a publisher could not be found and the work was put aside. Another four years passed before Schumann worked on it again.

During this time, the Schumanns and Clara’s father were reconciled because he wanted to see his grandchildren.

Robert had suffered spells of depression and mood swings since his teenage years. In 1844 he began to suffered from ‘nervous prostration’. As soon as he began to work, he was seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death, experiencing an abhorrence of high places, all metal instruments (even keys), and drugs. He also continuously heard the note A sounding in his ears, possibly a symptom of tinnitus or an auditory hallucination. I often feel a sense of desperation in Schumann’s music and I imagine his mental illness is the source.

Despite his deteriorating mental health, Schumann continued to compose. When he turned his attention to his piano concerto again in 1845 at the urging of his wife, he started by composing the third movement, then a connecting intermezzo, which seems to have given him a great deal of trouble, writing seven different versions before he was satisfied.

Clara by this time had had three children (the first died at a year old) and a fourth was on the way – they had eight surviving children all told. Her time to practise was very limited not only because of the children but because Robert needed silence to compose, so she could play only when he took his afternoon walk. But finally she had ‘her’ concerto, and played at the first performance in Dresden on 4 December 1845. It was an immediate success, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung saying: ‘We all have reason to hold this composition in very high esteem and place it among the best by this composer.’

I have chosen a performance by students at the Stanisław Moniuszko Music School in Bielsko Biała, Poland, with soloist Patrycja Gajek.

And here is the score: 

Schumann was later plagued by hallucinations. At first these were angelic but when they became demonic he leaped into the Rhine in a suicide attempt in early 1854. He was rescued and asked to be taken to an asylum for the insane. He entered a sanatorium in Bonn and remained there until he died on 29 July 1856 at the age of 46. He was not allowed to see Clara until two days before his death. He appeared to recognise her, but was able to speak only a few words. It is now thought that he had bipolar disorder and probably a brain tumour.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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