Allegro moderato molto e marcato – Quasi presto – Andante maestoso (A minor → F major → A minor → A major)
The first movement is noted for the timpani roll in the first bar that leads to a dramatic piano flourish. The movement is in the Sonata form. The movement finishes with a virtuosic cadenza and a similar flourish as in the beginning.
The second movement is a lyrical movement in D-flat major, which leads directly into the third movement.
The third movement opens in A minor 4/4 time with an energetic theme (Theme 1), which is followed by a lyrical theme in F major (Theme 2). The movement returns to Theme 1. Following this recapitulation is the 3/4 A major Quasi presto section, which consists of a variation of Theme 1. The movement concludes with the Andante maestoso in A major, which consists of a dramatic rendition of Theme 2 (as opposed to the lyrical fashion with which Theme 2 is introduced).
Performance time of the whole concerto is usually just under 30 minutes.
The work is among Grieg’s earliest important works, written by the 24-year-old composer in 1868 in Søllerød, Denmark, during one of his visits there to benefit from the climate.
Grieg’s concerto is often compared to the Piano Concerto of Robert Schumann — it is in the same key, the opening descending flourish on the piano is similar, and the overall style is considered to be closer to Schumann than any other single composer. Incidentally, both wrote only one concerto for piano. Grieg had heard Schumann’s concerto played by Clara Schumann in Leipzig in 1858 (1859 is given by alternative sources), and was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style generally, having been taught the piano by Schumann’s friend, Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel.
Additionally, Grieg’s work provides evidence of his interest in Norwegian folk music; the opening flourish is based on the motif of a falling minor second (see interval) followed by a falling major third, which is typical of the folk music of Grieg’s native country. This specific motif occurs in other works by Grieg, including the String Quartet No. 1. In the last movement of the concerto, similarities to the halling (a Norwegian folk dance) and imitations of the Hardanger fiddle (the Norwegian folk fiddle) have been detected.
The theme of the third movement of the concerto, which is influenced by the Norwegian Halling dance.
The work was premiered by Edmund Neupert on April 3, 1869 in Copenhagen, with Holger Simon Paulli conducting. Some sources say that Grieg himself, an excellent pianist, was the intended soloist, but he was unable to attend the premiere owing to commitments with an orchestra in Christiania (now Oslo). Among those who did attend the premiere were the Danish composer Niels Gade and the Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein, who provided his own piano for the occasion. Neupert was also the dedicatee of the second edition of the concerto (Rikard Nordraak was the original dedicatee), and James Huneker said that he himself composed the first movement cadenza.
The Norwegian premiere in Christiania followed on August 7, 1869, and the piece was later heard in Germany in 1872 and England in 1874. At Grieg’s visit to Franz Liszt in Rome in 1870, Liszt played the notes a prima vista before an audience of musicians and gave very good comments on Grieg’s work, which influenced him later. The work was first published in Leipzig in 1872, but only after Johan Svendsen intervened on Grieg’s behalf.
The concerto is the first piano concerto ever recorded — by pianist Wilhelm Backhaus in 1909. Due to the technology of the time, it was heavily abridged at only six minutes.
Grieg revised the work at least seven times, usually in subtle ways, but amounting to over 300 differences from the original orchestration. In one of these revisions, he undid Franz Liszt‘s suggestion to give the second theme of the first movement (as well as the first theme of the second) to the trumpet rather than to the cello. The final version of the concerto was completed only a few weeks before Grieg’s death, and it is this version that has achieved worldwide popularity. The original 1868 version has been recorded, by Love Derwinger, with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra under Jun’ichi Hirokami.
In 1882–83 Grieg worked on a second piano concerto in B minor, but it was never completed. The sketches for the concerto have been recorded by pianist Einar Steen-Nøkleberg. In 1997, the Belgian composer Laurent Beeckmans elaborated a full piano concerto from these sketches, which was first performed in London on 3 May 2003.
In popular culture
The enduring popularity of Grieg’s Piano Concerto has ensured its use in a wide variety of contexts.
The concerto was used in a sketch by the British comedians Morecambe and Wise in their 1971 Christmas show. Conducted by André Previn, with Eric Morecambe as soloist, Morecambe claims he is playing “all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”. In fact, he was playing a simplified version of the correct music, but in a completely inappropriate style.
The comedian Bill Bailey is a skilled musician, and has used Grieg’s piano concerto for comic effect; in the TV Series Black Books it is played by his character Manny Bianco, and it is cited as an example in his solo mock-scholarly sketch on cockney music.
The introductory motif opens “Make the Most of Your Music”, in the 1987 revised version of Follies.
The following performance is by the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Eros. The piano soloist is Neal O’Doan.