Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16
solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro molto moderato
III. Allegro moderato molto e marcato
First performance: April 3, 1869, Copenhagen. Edmund Neupert, piano. Holger Simon Paulli, conductor.
When nationalism emerged as a major force within the 19th century romantic style, it attracted the competent young creative artists from countries or areas that were, or had once been, subservient to foreign powers. For them, nationalism was an expression of their unique cultural heritage. The movement was felt most strongly in Czechoslovakia and Scandinavia. In Czechoslovakia, Smetana and Dvorak were the overpowering figures and, although the Scandinavian movement witnessed the contributions of many highly accomplished Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish composers; the figure of Edvard Grieg stands above them all.
Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, Norway, into a family that strongly encouraged his early musical studies. As happened with virtually all young composers who would eventually embrace nationalism, Grieg had no choice but to complete his musical education at a German conservatory – in this case, the one in Leipzig. Although he later complained bitterly about his four years there, he did gain an intimate knowledge of the music of Schumann that would affect his style. In 1864, he moved to Copenhagen, then the center of Scandinavian nationalism. It was there that his nationalist style was to begin its development. He later returned to Norway, where his songs, piano music, and incidental music became indelibly linked with the spirit of Norwegian folk music and literature. Grieg once modestly described his music in the following terms: “Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on ethereal heights…I want to build homes for people in which they can be happy and contented.”
The “homes” Grieg built were small and few. Many, including Debussy and George Bernard Shaw, faulted him for his small output and the relative lack of powerful works. The former referred to Grieg as “…a pink bon-bon wrapped in snow.” On the other hand, the influential Liszt became a powerful ally, encouraging Grieg to follow his natural instincts. Perhaps because of support from such an important figure, Grieg’s biggest work in terms of power and gesture is the Piano Concerto in A minor. Only 25 at the time of its composition, Grieg was able to exhibit a degree of maturity in his handling of the concerto form that few have equaled. A drum roll followed by a brilliantly descending passage in the piano sets the stage perfectly for what follows – a succession of lyrical, reflective, and sometimes dramatic themes that extend throughout the three movements. The melancholy second movement concludes with a dialogue between the piano and the solo horn. Only in the final movement does one hear the color and movement of Norwegian folk dance. Not surprisingly, Liszt championed the work and was largely responsible for making it one of the most frequently performed of all piano concertos.