Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16

Written for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Why not begin by remembering the strangely mystical satisfaction of stretching my arms over the piano keyboard and bringing forth—not a melody. Far from it! No, it had to be a chord … both hands helping. Oh joy! … That was a success!

This was Edvard Grieg at five years old, as he remembered it in an autobiographical article, My First Success. And why not begin a piano concerto the same way, at age 25? Grieg’s Piano Concerto channels that sense of childlike wonder and experimentation into an elegant Romantic form. Its virtuosity is natural, not finger-twisting; while by no means easy, it feels mostly at ease.

Grieg became Norway’s foremost composer by way of the Leipzig Conservatory, which had been founded by Felix Mendelssohn 15 years earlier. His hometown teacher sent him off from Bergen with the words: “you are to go to Leipzig to become an artist!” The reality was drearier: egotistical professors, cutthroat classmates, homesickness, and poor health. “I was a dreamer with absolutely no talent for competition,” he recalled. “I was unfocused, not very communicative, and anything but teachable.”

Nonetheless, he picked up skills in harmony and composition, and a minor interaction changed the course of his life. Another student owned a precious hand-copied score of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and offered to trade it for a string quartet by Grieg (presumably to pass off as his own work). Grieg loved Schumann, and accepted the deal so he could study the piece closely. He also had the chance to hear “the bewitching Clara Schumann” play her late husband’s concerto in Leipzig in November 1860, a performance he said was “indelibly impressed on my soul.”

It also made an impression on his own Piano Concerto, which he openly modeled on Schumann’s. Written in 1868, it became Grieg’s first international success, and remains his only orchestral piece in a largescale classical form (there are no Grieg symphonies, for instance). Having left the conservatory in 1862, he settled for a time in Copenhagen. “The veil fell off,” he said, “and suddenly my wondering eyes beheld the world of beauty which the Leipzig fog had hidden from me.” He married a cousin, Nina, and they moved back to Norway, settling in Kristiania (today called Oslo). He wrote the Piano Concerto while spending a summer in Denmark again, and premiered it in Copenhagen in April 1869.

The Concerto

A timpani roll accelerates into the first piano chord and its ensuing downward cascade. Even if you are hearing the concerto for the first time, the opening will seem intuitively familiar. The main theme is expressive but cool-headed; the more lyrical response is svelte and honest. The movement culminates in a bold cadenza—that five-year-old pianist has grown up to play a lot of chords now, still curious about the sound of each one.

The slow movement evokes a hymn, or hushed poetry. This time the piano enters with just two notes, four octaves apart, gently meeting the orchestra’s outreached hand. The soloist plays along for a time, but twice gets a bit feisty before settling back down to tranquillo. Finally the pianist convinces the orchestra to support a more full-throated rendition of the hymn, and leaves satisfied.

The finale was inspired by Norwegian folk music, which Grieg was just beginning to investigate while clearing his head of all the German Romanticism he soaked up in Leipzig. It also has a curious form—almost a miniature concerto unto itself, with an early cadenza and false ending, followed by a sort of internal slow movement. Then back at a fast clip, the concerto fiddles and trumpets its way to the end.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.