Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto

In 1828, at the age of nine, German pianist Clara Wieck made her debut as a professional musician. And although she toured Europe extensively as a child and teen, and earned the acclaim of Goethe, Paganini and Chopin, perhaps the most impactful meeting of her musical life happened in her very first year of public performance: it was then that a teenage Robert Schumann heard her playing. He immediately informed his mother that, despite his family’s preference that he study law, he was quitting law school to study piano with the same teacher as the brilliant player he had just heard.

Clara’s teacher was her father, Friedrich Wieck. Robert moved in, and lived with the Wieck family for a year. Friedrich was a difficult and unyielding man, who had planned out Clara’s career meticulously from the time she was four years old; and although Clara managed to flourish as a pianist despite the harsh conditions of her training, Robert did not. Under the elder Wieck’s tutelage, he sustained an injury to his right hand that permanently ended his career as a pianist, and he turned to composition as a primary career.

His old teacher became a foe in earnest when Robert, after several years of courtship that often consisted of him waiting hours in a cafe to see her briefly after her concerts, proposed marriage to the 18-year-old Clara. She accepted, but her father refused. Together, they took him to court and won the right to marry– which they did one day before her 21st birthday, the date on which she would have attained majority status and not required her father’s permission anyway. Although they were understandably estranged from Friedrich for several years, after the birth of their first child they reconciled, with Friedrich eager to meet his granddaughter, Marie.

Although Robert Schumann wrote an enormous amount of music for piano, his Piano Concerto in A minor is his only completed concerto. Clara urged him to expand the piece from a one-movement Phantasie into a full concerto; she premiered the Phantasie in Leipzig, and the full concerto four years later in Dresden. She was utterly taken with the concerto that she had coaxed into being from her husband: “How rich in invention,” she wrote after the premiere, “how interesting from the beginning to the end, how fresh and what a beautiful coherent whole!"

Indeed, the work is a “coherent whole” in a way that no piano concerto had ever been before. Contrary to the expectation of the time that a piano concerto was merely an orchestral vehicle for pianistic virtuosity, Schumann’s concerto places the soloist and the orchestra on equal footing. Although the innovation was met with mixed acclaim and confusion, the work soon grew in popularity and ushered in a new era of collaboration between pianist and orchestra.