Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16

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            Easily Grieg’s most famous work, it was composed in 1868, when the composer was only twenty-five years of age.   Married the year before, he, his wife, and their two-month old daughter were in Denmark, escaping the more rigorous Norwegian climate.   Grieg was an excellent pianist—it was a major focus of his life as a composer—and had the privilege of hearing Schumann’s piano concerto played by Schumann’s wife, the great virtuosa, Clara Schumann, while a student at the Leipzig conservatory.   It has long been generally accepted that the Schumann composition informed much of the young Grieg’s concerto.  With its multitude of attractive melodies and its dramatic musical rhetoric it became a Norwegian favorite almost immediately—although the rest of the world warmed to it gradually.   The greatest pianist of the time, Franz Liszt, however, read through it early on and praised it with unreserved enthusiasm.   Later, near the end of Grieg’s life, Percy Grainger—a leading piano virtuoso of the time—spent time with Grieg in Norway studying the work, and promoted it for the next half century.

            Grieg’s musical panache is in evidence from the beginning when the timpani crescendos right into the soloist’s big-time entry.  This dramatic beginning is followed by a winsome succession of tunes—seven, all told –memorably led by the melody in the cellos accompanied by trombone chords.  The tender second movement has been associated with Grieg’s response to the recent birth of his daughter, Alexandra.   The last movement is based upon the rhythms of the traditional Norwegian folkdance, the halling, with a lyrical diversion in the middle, featuring a solo flute.

            While the popular idea of Grieg today may pigeonhole him as a late Romantic nationalist, master of ingratiating tunes, and painter of quaint Scandinavian scenes, he is much more.   He was strongly influential upon Debussy—especially in comparing their respective string quartets—and also upon the evolution of advanced harmonic thinking in general.   In a famous exaggeration, Frederick Delius observed that:   “ Modern French music is simply Grieg plus the prelude to the third act of Tristan.”  Persiflage perhaps, but more than a grain of truth.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 Wm. E. Runyan