Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor

Clara Wieck was younger than all the white dudes – yes, even younger than Mozart – when she composed, published, and premiered her Piano Concerto in A minor on original themes. She was 16 years old.

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 Wieck concerto is amateur any more than her youth and gender. Quite the opposite.

Here’s a great recording with Isata Kanneh-Mason playing.

Listen while you read!

The concerto is mono-thematic and uniquely through-composed with advanced tonal shifts. Beatrice Rana called as revolutionary as the concertos of Liszt and Robert Schumann, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin said its a work that stands on its own with no equivalent – both in interviews for my writing about the Wieck Concerto for the NY Times on the Wieck Concerto.

It’s a work of innovation. Joe Davies, editor of Clara Schumann Studies, says it was written at a pinnacle point in the history of the piano concerto.

The Wieck Concerto is a full spectrum of technical virtuoso feats still challenging the most skilled professional pianists. With its unified three-movement structure—each with seamless transitions—the work is less than twenty minutes, a testament to the genius of brevity.

The themes are linked with Clara’s trademark improvisatory style, every new phrase built clearly on the motives that come before it. The melodies are beautiful and emotive, particularly the slow, middle movement with its bel canto Bellini influence, a genre busting duet between piano and solo cello. The key of A minor possesses all the angsty flavors of early romanticism that we love in the popular canon concertos.

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

[Read my newsletter review of seeing my first live performance and how the full brilliance of the work can only be appreciated with an audience.]

Historical Context

In 1835, at the time of its premiere, Beethoven concertos were rarely performed, and many of Mozart’s best concertos were still completely unknown. The audience preferences of the day were for flashier virtuoso works by composers most of us have never heard of: 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 the first concertos of Chopin and Felix Mendelssohn.

Which means—the Wieck concerto was an influence 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 – the 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 the Wieck concerto’s similar structure to Liszt’s.

And then there’s the big cello solo in Brahms’s 2nd piano concerto’s Andante, a direct reference to the cello solo in the Wieck concerto’s slow movement Romanze – 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 gender, the work impacted the repertoire as much as Chopin’s and Mendelssohn’s.

(For those concertos to be included in the standard canon but not Clara Wieck’s… Well, I won’t get started on how wrong that is and what a hole it leaves in the history of the genre. The Wieck concerto is a missing link.)

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

She began orchestration lessons at age thirteen, composed an orchestral overture (since lost), then began work on the concerto at age fourteen. Most of the third movement was composed that year. She finished the first and second movements between concert tours over the coming two seasons. (There is some information that Robert assisted Clara with orchestrations of one of the movements, but Clara then edited and rewrote them herself so it’s hard to know just how much ended up in the final version.)

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…

Clara Wieck took the concerto on tour for the next few years, performing it 7 times total across the continent, including in Vienna where audiences demanded 3 performances. 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.

Click here to watch my pre-concert talk on the Wieck Concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra.