Grieg's Piano Concerto

PROGRAM NOTES by Paul Schiavo

Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16

Born: June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway
Died: September 4, 1907, in Bergen
Work composed: 1868
World premiere: April 3, 1869, in Copenhagen; Edmund Neupert, piano

Edvard Grieg wrote his Piano Concerto, his most ambitious and celebrated composition, in the summer of 1868, during a quiet rural vacation. The composer had recently returned to his native Norway from Germany, where he had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory. In Leipzig Grieg had encountered the music of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Their work had made a strong impression on Grieg, and his early compositions show him emulating the style and forms of the German Romantics.

Once back in his homeland, however, Grieg began to discover the beauties of Norway’s folk music. This was hardly a unique development. The 19th century was an era of strong nationalist movements throughout Europe; patriotic sentiments prompted many composers to re-examine indigenous music and incorporate elements of this into their works. Grieg’s formulation of a distinctly Nordic idiom would eventually make him the musical voice of Scandinavia during the last third of the 19th century. But in 1868, the 25-year-old composer had only begun his exploration of native Norwegian songs, and he was still very much under the Teutonic influence of the Conservatory. His Piano Concerto, therefore, exhibits a certain Norwegian flavor in its themes but otherwise lies firmly within the tradition of Romantic concerto composition. Grieg even intimated that he modeled his work on Schumann’s Piano Concerto in the same key. Still, its great melodiousness gives evidence of a distinctive musical personality, and the concerto has enjoyed longstanding favor among concert audiences.

The opening measures are among the most arresting in any concerto. Following a dramatic timpani roll, the piano unleashes a cascade of sonorous A-minor chords. This motif, important though it is, is only a prelude to the initial theme of the first movement, a melody announced by the orchestral winds, who then pass it to the soloist. The orchestra—more specifically, the cellos—also introduces the warmly romantic second theme, and again the piano promptly takes up the call. Elaboration of these ideas leads eventually to a cadenza for the soloist, and the movement concludes by recalling the cascading chords with which it began.

In contrast to the dramatic character of the first movement, the Adagio is based on a melody sung with hushed reverence by the muted strings. A brief transition leads without pause to the finale. Here the influence of Nordic folk music, which would become so important to Grieg’s later work, does color the music. The principal theme gives the impression of an energetic Norwegian dance, while the movement’s central section takes us out of doors, a melody introduced as a striking flute solo seeming the song of a peasant girl.

Scored for solo piano; 2 flutes, the second doubling on piccolo; pairs of oboes, clarinets and bassoons; 4 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani and strings.

Symphony No. 9 in D Minor

Born: September 4, 1824, in Ansfelden, near Linz, Austria,
Died: October 11, 1896, in Vienna
Work composed: 1890–96
World premiere: February 11, 1903, in Vienna; Ferdinand Löwe conducting

Anton Bruckner spent his last half-dozen years—that is, from 1890 on—intermittently writing the work we know as his Symphony No. 9. The composer completed its first three movements prior to his death in 1896 but left the fourth unfinished.

This truncated finale poses a problem in performance, of course, one that musicologists face in several other famously unfinished compositions, including Mozart’s Requiem and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. As with those works, several solutions have been advanced for bringing Bruckner’s composition to its projected dimensions. One is to use the composer’s 1884 Te Deum as the symphony’s final movement. Although Bruckner reportedly endorsed this course on his deathbed, it has struck most musicians as unsatisfactory for reasons of style—the character of a sacred choral piece like the Te Deum inevitably varies from that of a symphony— and tonality, as the two works are in entirely different keys. No less dubious is the possibility of completing Bruckner’s finale. The American Bruckner scholar William Carrigan has made a skilled attempt at this, but his effort can only be regarded as highly speculative.

The generally preferred solution is therefore the conservative one: to perform only the three movements that Bruckner lived to complete. The result is hardly deficient. In three movements, the Ninth Symphony is still a very substantial work—nearly an hour of music, in fact. As for closing with a broad Adagio, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony and Mahler’s Ninth provide notable precedents for ending a symphony with a slow movement.

The first movement of Bruckner’s symphony stands as one of the epic utterances in all of music. Its dimensions are such that ordinary symphonic subjects could hardly fill them, and the composer therefore builds the movement from extended thematic ideas, the first being a succession of several distinct melodic shapes that really should be called a theme group. This composite subject articulates a long crescendo in the opening minutes of the work, starting with a quiet tremolo note and building through horn calls and plaintive phrases in the violins and woodwinds to a thundering unison statement by the full orchestra.

Descending scale figures plucked out by the strings and punctuated by two-note calls from the woodwinds form a transition passage to the second subject. Unfolding as a long, beautiful melody for the violins, this is more lyrical than anything that has gone before. A mysterious motif announced by the oboe and echoed by other wind instruments then leads to the third subject, a march-like melody whose harmonies repeatedly shift between major and minor modes. Bruckner now proceeds to revisit this great array of thematic ideas, viewing them from new perspectives and moving through a series of shattering climaxes, the last of which brings the movement to a close.

The second movement is a scherzo, but neither the hearty jest we associate with Beethoven nor the gossamer “fairy scherzo” of Mendelssohn, nor still the nostalgic dance Mahler sometimes wrote. Rather, Bruckner gives us urgent music whose tone ranges from seemingly elemental power to an almost macabre eeriness to tender effusion in the central section.

The ensuing Adagio is even more prodigal in presenting a wide range of moods and textures. Indeed, the music gives the impression of an odyssey through an ever-changing tonal landscape, its chief quality seeming to be a kind of restless searching implied by the yearning chromatic inflections of its initial melody. The movement ends quietly. This is not the heroic conclusion Bruckner undoubtedly would have provided the symphony had he lived, but by fading gently into silence, the final moments of this third movement remind us that the composer was not able to finish his work. In doing so, they acquire an unexpected poignancy.

Scored for 3 flutes; 3 oboes; 3 clarinets; 3 bassoons; 8 horns including 4 Wagner tubas; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones and tuba; timpani and strings.

© 2007 Paul Schiavo

Back to Performance Information