Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor

Clara Schumann was younger than all the white dudes—yes, younger than Mozart—when she composed, published, and premiered her Piano Concerto in A minor—at age sixteen.

Felix Mendelssohn conducted the premiere with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, November 9th, 1835. It was Clara’s only full orchestral work. But “only” does not signify that the concerto was amateur any more than her youthfulness does. Quite the opposite.

Here’s my favorite recording with Isata Kanneh-Mason playing.

Listen while you read!

The concerto is uniquely through-composed with unusual tonal shifts that were very advanced at the time. Its full spectrum of technical virtuoso feats still challenge the most skilled professional pianists. With its unified three movement structure—each with seamless transitions—the work is less than twenty minutes.

The themes are all linked by Clara’s trademark improvisatory style, every new phrase built clearly on the motives that come before it. The melodies are tuneful and pleasing, particularly the slow, middle movement with its bel canto Bellini influence. Its minor tonality possesses all the angsty flavors of early romanticism that we love.

In short—it’s a crowd pleaser as well as an innovative work.

Historical Context

At the time of its premiere, Beethoven concertos were rarely being played, and many of Mozart’s concertos were still completely unknown. The audience preferences of the day were for flashier virtuoso works by composers we’ve mostly forgotten: Thalberg, Pixis, Mocheles, Field, etc.

Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms’s concertos were still decades away. The only concertos Clara had for reference or inspiration were Chopin’s two concertos and Mendelssohn’s first concerto.

Which means—Clara’s concerto was a reference for Robert, Franz, and Johannes. Yes, it really was. Clara couldn’t build on their work, because it hadn’t been written yet. But they built on hers.

Lots of scholarship has been written on how she influenced them.

New research by Alexander Stefaniak in his book Schumann’s Virtuosity goes in depth as to how Robert used Clara’s concerto—it’s structure, tonalities, and thematic content—as a model for his. Claudia Macdonald wrote comparisons between Clara and Robert’s concertos. Stephen Lindeman in Structural Novelty and Tradition in the Early Romantic Concerto discusses Clara’s concerto’s influence on Liszt’s.

(I could go into much more detail, but I’m already giving away too much of my research for free.)

And then there’s Brahms with his big Andante cello solo in his 2nd piano concerto. A direct reference to the cello solo in the slow movement of Clara’s concerto composed almost 50 years later in 1881.

Talk about long lasting influence and impact.

How young was Clara when she wrote her concerto?

Since the work is so often discussed with variations on “good for a teenager” or “especially for a girl,” I’ve saved this for last. Because, regardless of her age or that she was a woman, the work impacted the repertoire as much as Chopin’s concertos and Mendelssohn’s first concerto.

For Mendelssohn’s first and both of Chopin’s concertos to be included in the standard canon but not Clara Wieck’s… Well, I won’t get started on WHY.

(Hint: The phrase starts with an M-word and ends with an -archy.)

But yes, Clara was exceedingly young—a mark of her genius as a composer and pianist.

She began orchestration lessons at age twelve, composed an orchestral overture (since lost), then began work on the concerto at age thirteen. Most of the first movement was composed that year. She finished it over the coming two seasons while still giving concert tours and performing all over Germany. (It’s unclear as to how or whether Robert assisted Clara with editing the orchestrations. I’ve read different accounts in different places, and the letters and diaries are vague.)

Clara wrote out the final orchestral parts the summer of her 15th year. That fall, a month after her 16th birthday, she premiered it on the same program as she played the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Capriccio in B minor, a set of Herz variations, and Bach’s concerto for three pianos with Mendelssohn also playing.

That whole program was basically devoted to Clara.

After the premiere…

She took the concerto on tour for the next few years, performing it across the continent, including Vienna and Prague where audiences loved it. Alas, the critics’ reactions were less so. But that’s for another post. To say she suffered from the stigma of “lady’s work” (even from her own fiancée) is an understatement.

But all that aside—Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto in A minor is an influential work in the repertoire whether it’s been admitted to the current canon or not. No amount of exclusion from modern orchestral programs and piano competitions can diminish the truth of what Clara contributed to the genre: a unique cornerstone in the development of the early-romantic piano concerto.

*If you use this article, please credit Sarah Fritz. I’m available for writing program notes, album liners, and articles, and I would love to be of assistance. Contact sarahfritzwritr at gmail dot com