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Composed: 1835-36

About this Piece

When she completed and performed her first and only Piano Concerto, Clara Wieck Schumann was still a teenager, but already a veteran performer and composer. Trained from early childhood and managed by her often tyrannical and controlling father Friedrich Wieck, she had toured internationally with programs including some of her own pieces. Music had become for her “the air in which I breathe.” But Clara was well aware that at the time, as she said, “women cannot become composers.... I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?” 

 Throughout her long and prolific career, Clara proved that yes, she could expect to be the one. After meeting her, poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe admitted that “the girl has more power than six boys put together.” Nonetheless, Clara’s life required a strenuous balancing act between the expected roles of wife and mother and her immense talent and strong creative drive. The Piano Concerto dates from the period when she was coming to know the man who would become her husband and whose own career would overshadow hers: composer Robert Schumann (1810–1856). Together they would have eight children, raised mostly by Clara, since Robert suffered from severe mental illness and was eventually institutionalized. Their relationship was a complicated one; although he encouraged Clara’s composing, Robert told her that “men stand higher than women” and warned her that “Marriage is different. Then there is cooking to be done.” Her job, he said, would be to “stimulate me, and since I shall often be hearing my compositions, you will encourage me.” 

Robert was closely involved with the evolution of what became Clara’s Piano Concerto. In early 1833, three years after Robert moved into her father’s house to study piano, she finished and orchestrated a Konzertsatz that would eventually become the final movement of the completed three-movement Concerto. Robert revised the orchestration in early 1834. Over the next two years, she wrote and orchestrated the first and second movements, and redid Robert’s orchestration of the third movement. On November 9, 1835, she played the premiere at a high-profile concert with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, one of Clara’s most enthusiastic champions. 

Despite her youth and inexperience in assembling a large work with piano soloist and orchestra, Clara succeeded in creating an impressive sense of musical unity. The rising figure (confident but tender) in dotted rhythm in the tonic key of A minor heard at the outset reappears in the themes of the following two movements. Most unusual in form is the second movement “Romance,” in the unexpected key of A-flat major, for piano and cello, a lyrical “song without words.” Cast in modified Rondo form, the third movement offers the soloist ample opportunities to display a richly detailed and elegant virtuosity, reminiscent of Chopin’s piano music, often featured in Clara’s own recitals. Not surprisingly, the piano dominates throughout, with the orchestra assuming a distinctly subordinate role. 

Clara always held herself to exacting artistic standards, and she later expressed doubts about whether her youthful Concerto met them. “I play it because everyone likes it,” she told her husband. “Whether it satisfies me personally, that is another question.” But Clara had no need to apologize for this finely crafted and highly individual little masterpiece, by turns fiery and fantastic.