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Edvard Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor (Op. 16)
Performers: Ronan O'Hora (piano), Ulster Orchestra, George Vass (conductor)
Each month we’ll be identifying a work or a style of music from one of the programmes and providing informative listening notes that bring out some of the music’s interesting features, focusing on the musical elements of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, pitch and structure.
These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor
Romantic Piano Concerto
This famous concerto was written in 1868 by Grieg at the relatively early age of 24 and is a favourite amongst pianists with a firm place in the established piano concerto repertoire. A concerto is a piece for a solo instrument with orchestra (concerted means ‘playing together’). Romantic ideals of the lonely artist pitted against the world are encapsulated in the concerto concept. The concerto affords opportunities for musical conflict and debate between the soloist and orchestra leading to some eventual resolution. Listen to the musical dialogue between soloist and orchestra throughout the work!
The concerto was composed in Søllerød, Denmark where Grieg was enjoying a warmer climate than that of his native Norway. This was his only complete work in this medium – a second piano concerto in B minor was started in 1882, but never completed. Grieg revised the score at least seven times with subtle changes to the orchestration.
Grieg’s work is often compared to the piano concerto in the same key by Robert Schumann. Both works have similar musical ideas (for example the opening descending theme) as well as a similar musical style. Grieg was inevitably influenced by his German training and in addition to Schumann there are clear romantic traits of Brahms and Chopin detectable in the music. However, Grieg’s own musical voice is unique in his use of Norwegian folk music.
Grieg was actually of Scottish descent (then spelt as Greig). Perhaps the bagpipe-like drone in the dance of the third movement has Scottish hints!
The work follows the conventional three movement concerto plan i.e. Allegro – Adagio - Allegro
Notes on the Music
The melodies in this piano concerto fall broadly into two romantic categories: the heroic/passionate and the lyrical/expressive. In the former case, the passionate mood is realised effectively in the themes of the first movement, and in the latter case, they include the haunting melody of the second movement as well as the use of Norwegian Folk melodies, particularly in the themes of the last movement.
Grieg has been criticised as a composer who struggled with handling large scale movements and developing melodies effectively on a broad canvas. It is true that Grieg excelled as a miniaturist in many genres, but comments that he simply ‘stitched together’ melodies to make them go further are somewhat exaggerated. We can see examples of how melodies undergo thematic transformation and organic growth throughout the work. Listen to the way in which Grieg transforms the duple melody into a triple time Waltz in the 3rd movement for instance. Whilst maybe not as skilful as Brahms in terms of thematic motive development (a process whereby short ideas or motifs are developed; this could be a particular rhythmic idea in the melody or just two or three notes etc.) there is a clear sense of melodic development throughout this piano concerto.
The virtuoso nature of the piano figurations exploits numerous rhythmic patterns, including in the first movement alone:
(a) The catchy crotchet-dotted quaver, semiquaver-two quaver rhythm of the theme of the first movement
(b) Various groupings of semiquavers in 4/5/6/7’s etc.
(c) Triplet figures
(d) Demisemiquaver patterns
(e) On beat sustained crotchets and minims (wind parts) with off beat quavers in the strings
(a) The Improvisatory
(b) The Melodic
The cadenza (an extended solo passage, designed to be virtuosic and based on themes already heard in the movement; often fairly free in time and can be notated by the composer or made up by the performer) of the first movement contains numerous different rhythm figurations which enhance the fantasia (a musical style containing elements of freedom – in time or metre - and flights of fancy) feeling of this section.
Despite the slow tempo of the second movement the florid, expressive writing for the solo piano utilises a vast array of demisemiquaver passage work, in various groupings. This is in stark contrast to straight ‘on beat’ 3/8 crotchet–quaver rhythms in the orchestra.
In the third movement Grieg becomes even more adventurous using rhythms grouped in 13, 22 and 27 notes patterns. Likewise, sustained notes in the melody are frequently accompanied by broken chords in triplets or sextuplets etc. In this movement too, after eight bars, Grieg stamps out the strong ‘two–in-a-bar’ rhythms (four quavers in the bass) of the Norwegian folk dance, called the ‘Hurling’ which he later metamorphoses into a fast triple time (‘one-in-a-bar’ feel) Waltz in the major key (three fast crotchets in a bar).
As one would expect, writing in the second half of the nineteenth century, Grieg writes using many of the established chords of romantic harmony. The music is essentially diatonic (chords in the key of the music - here, A minor) with modulations to related (and some unrelated) keys. In addition, there are many chromatic chords (chords that are not diatonic) and these include dominant and diminished sevenths, 9ths, 11ths and 13ths (chords with added notes above the tonic note, e.g. a 9th above a C major chord is C - E – G - D. The diminished seventh is made up of a series of superimposed minor thirds, e.g. C sharp - min 3rd _ E -min 3rd _ G - min 3rd - B flat ). Listen to the cadenza – it is full of diminished seventh figurations! There are many passages too in the piano part of chromatic sequences (including rapid chromatic passages – in octaves and thirds in the first movement cadenza).
The overriding texture is homophony (tune with accompaniment).
There are some solo moments too (monophonic) and passages in octaves (in intervals of eight notes apart).
Grieg also is fond of alternating wind and string passages (for example at bar 6-9 (and 18-21) in the first movement. There are obviously passages too for solo piano alone and occasions where thematic material is given to orchestral instruments and the piano takes on an accompanying role.
Textural contrasts are used to good effect in the work and the tutti sound is held back for extreme dramatic effect, be it the final punctuating chords of the first movement or the chordal passage at the end of the work. For the delicate and soft dynamic sections in the music, a light string accompaniment (muted - with mutes applied to the strings to soften the tone; tremolo - rapid unmeasured playing usually between two notes of different pitches; pizzicato - plucked) is used to great effect to support the solo piano.
There are two main types of piano writing:
1. The Improvisatory - This incorporates passages of fantasia writing most notably in the cadenza sections. This is where the pianist can display virtuoso skills of rapid passage work, scalic runs, arpeggios etc. This freedom of expression is truly romantic in spirit!
2. The Melodic - This is the metrical thematic material of the concerto which undergoes transformation as each movement progresses. The melody lines are often accompanied with patterns of semiquaver figurations.
Grieg uses the whole keyboard range in this work, treating the piano as if it is the whole orchestra! Listen to the rapid descent from on high to the bass in the opening descending bars of the first movement or the vast range heard in the cadenza of the same movement. The orchestra too is used in a romantic fashion with, at times, thunderous chords spread over several octaves. Just listen to the last four chords. The range is some 5 octaves!
In the dramatic, emotional moments, Grieg explores a wide range. However, in the subdued sections, the range is often limited and relatively low pitched. Listen to the opening melody of the second movement as an example, up to the entry of the piano. The Norwegian folk dance too, uses a fairly limited (middle range) pitches in the third movement. After all, these melodies are meant to be easy to sing!
I Allegro molto moderato
III Allegro moderato e marcato
The work is scored for solo piano and an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A and B flat, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in Eb and E, 2 trumpets in C and B flat, 3 trombones, timpani and strings.