Piano Concerto in A Minor

Edvard Grieg

Born in Bergen, Norway, June 15, 1843; died in Bergen, September 4, 1907


When the adolescent Edvard Grieg showed exceptional musical promise, he was sent off at age 15 to Leipzig, Germany because Norway — not yet an independent country — had no conservatory to train him. Although he chafed at Leipzig's rigid pedagogy and at German music in general, Grieg did eventually find a sympathetic teacher in Ernst Wenzel, who had been a friend of Robert Schumann. Wenzel passed on his love of Schumann's music to the young Norwegian, and when in 1858 Edvard heard a performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto played by Schumann’s wife, Clara, he was enthralled by the work. Ten years later, while composing his own Piano Concerto in the same key of A minor, he would draw on Schumann's concerto for inspiration.

Although Grieg's Piano Concerto followed the traditional form of the Romantic, central-European concerto, it was the subtle use of Norwegian folk influences plus his own genius that kept the work from being a clone of Schumann's. The Concerto was the product of youth and happiness: composed during the idyllic summer of 1868, which the 25-year-old composer, his young bride, Nina, and their infant daughter spent in rural Denmark. It was a notable success at its first performance in Copenhagen in April 1869. 

This is a work that glories in its multitude of appealing themes — very personally Grieg's own — and its highly successful blending of tender lyricism with virtuoso display. Its first movement dispenses with the customary orchestral exposition: just a dramatic timpani roll galvanizes the soloist into action. His vertiginous three-octave plunge begins with a three-note melodic pattern — a descending half-step, following by a descending third — that is common in Norwegian folk music and became known as the “Grieg motive.” Woodwinds then introduce the folkish principal theme, animated by crisp dotted rhythms. It also has a smoothly lyrical second idea, which the piano makes more rhapsodic with swirls of arpeggios. In a slightly slower tempo, cellos sing a warm, romantically melancholic second theme. After a brief development, the opening music is reprised, coming to a sudden halt for a big cadenza for the soloist composed by Grieg.        

The slow movement travels far from the home key of A minor into the very distant D-flat major. Muted strings open with a weary theme, saturated in sorrow; notice the eloquent contributions here from the solo horn and cello. The piano's wistful response is woven of exquisite fast figurations. In a new phase, the piano passionately declares the pain implied in this melody before the movement dies out in elegiac beauty.

A short bridge passage intervenes to return the key of D-flat to A minor before the piano launches the finale's stomping main theme in the style of the Norwegian halling folk dance. Providing an interlude of repose, the solo flute sings a hauntingly lovely melody in a slower tempo; the piano gives it sensitive treatment with downward slip-sliding chords. Reprising his opening dance music, Grieg builds excitement to a brief solo cadenza of double-handed octaves. Then the soloist transforms the 2/4 halling into a sparkling 3/4 waltz. But Grieg has an even better idea for his finish. He brings back the haunting second theme, now in a splendid apotheosis in A major. As annotator Michael Steinberg pointed out, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff would later imitate this crowd-pleasing device, but Grieg did it first.


Instrumentation: Two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.