The MCO understands the importance of music education, which is why we’ve developed a unique instructional resource for teachers and parents. Written by music educator Beryl Peters, Ph.D, MCO’s Listening Guides provide a clear and thorough analysis of the repertoire featured in our concerts. They offer a perfect primer to the great works of Bach, Beethoven, Britten and beyond for K-8 and 9-12 students — with engaging historical anecdotes and simple theory for younger students, and more complex information for older students. Indeed, just about anyone can learn a thing or two from our MTS Future First Listening Guides … so dig in!


Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his only cello concerto, the Cello Concerto in A minor Op. 129 in Düsseldorf during a two week period in October 1850. However, the first performance of this work was not until four years after Schumann’s death. Schumann’s wife Clara, also a highly accomplished composer and musician, commented enthusiastically about the cello concerto in her diary: “I have played Robert’s Violoncello Concerto through again, thus giving myself a truly musical and happy hour. The Romantic quality, the vivacity, the freshness and humor, also the highly interesting interweaving of violoncello and orchestra are indeed wholly ravishing, and what euphony and deep feeling one finds in all the melodic passages!”

Schumann titled his work "Concertstueck fuer Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters" (Concertpiece for Violoncello with orchestral accompaniment). By titling the work as a a more intimate concert piece rather than as a concerto (Konzert), Schumann departed from previous conventional approaches to the concerto form, hinting at the innovative structure and harmonies found in this romantic work.


Manitoba Music Curricular Connections

9-12 Making: The learner develops competencies for listening by listening critically with discrimination and purpose to:

  • situate and contextualize music (e.g., cultural/ ideological/historical/social contexts, music style, genre, tradition, or praxis, etc.)
  • support enjoyment and understanding of music
  • make and interpret music expressively and creatively
  • inform analysis, interpretation, judgement, appreciation, and evaluation

K-8 Understanding Music in Context: Demonstrate awareness of the intended meanings and/or purposes of music encountered in own performance and listening experiences

9-12 Connecting: The learner develops understandings about the significance of music by connecting music to diverse contexts.

1 Can you identify the form (organizational structure) of this concerto? Schumann titled his concerto "Concertstueck fuer Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters" (Concertpiece for Violoncello with orchestral accompaniment). Although this concerto can be described as being one single, seamless movement known at the time as a Conzertstück (concert piece), can you hear three different sections, or movements? The movements are not as easy to distinguish in this romantic cello concerto as they are in other typically classical concertos such as those by Mozart or Beethoven, because the movements in this cello concerto are played without breaks between them and are linked by musical bridges.

Although each of the sections is played without pause and connected by fragments of similar thematic material, each of the three sections or movements of the concerto can still be distinguished by particular characteristics, differing tempos, and by key changes.

The three connected movements in this cello concerto are:

  • Nicht zu schnell (not too fast, in A minor)
  • Langsam (slow, in F major)
  • Sehr lebhaft (very lively, A minor to A major)

The first movement is written in sonata form as was usual for the classical concerto. In sonata form, the first and second themes are first presented, then developed and varied, and then they return at the end of the movement, all in predictable ways. However, Schumann treats the formal sonata form structure in unexpected, unusual and highly lyrical ways in this concerto.

The second section or movement is also very lyrical and song-like. Listen for a slower tempo, a change of key, and triplet figures (3 notes to a beat) to tell you that the second section is beginning. The second, slow movement can be described as a ternary or three part form (ABA) in which sounds heard at the beginning of the movement are contrasted with a different sounding middle section and then the first part of the section is heard again at the end of the movement.

The final, third movement is a contrasting and energetic sonata-rondo. In rondo form, a main theme is repeated before and after contrasting sections. The repeated theme is called the A section. The contrasting sections are called B, C, D etc., depending on how many different sections the composer decides to compose.

All three movements are structurally linked by various melodic and rhythmic fragments of sound called motifs that are introduced in one movement or section and then heard again in a later movement or section sometimes varied and with different and changing character.

There are three main recurring motifs that you can listen for. The three chords that open the work (mm. 1-3) are sometimes known as the “motto” of the concerto. This motto is heard again at various points, for example in transition to the slow movement and before the main melody of the final movement.

The second main motif is a recurring, rising arpeggio figure as in measure 14. An arpeggio is a series of notes of a chord played in succession going up or down.

The third recurring motif is a two note fragment with the second sound five notes lower than the first (descending fifth). This motif or figure has been called the “Clara motif” because the sound of the descending interval of a fifth is similar in inflection to the sounds of the name Clara, Robert Schuman’s wife. Some musicologists think that this motif was used by Robert Schumann as a symbol and way to honour his wife.

2 What Instruments can you hear in this concerto? How many performers are playing onstage? What string instruments do you hear (violin, viola, cello, double bass)? Schumann originally wrote this concerto for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings.

Can you pick out when you hear the flute, oboes, bassoons, and horns?

When do you first hear the solo cello? Can you hear the solo cello begin just after the orchestra starts the work with three distinct chords followed by a very short accompaniment pattern? This brief introduction is only four bars long.

After this introduction, can you hear the cello play a main theme or melody while the orchestra gently accompanies the cello? Do you hear the way that Schumann focuses on the solo cello and features it as a special instrument playing the main melody above the orchestra for much of the first movement?

Do you hear when the orchestra plays all together (an orchestral tutti) after the cello has presented the opening melody? When the cello plays two very fast ascending scale patterns, that is your clue that the first orchestral tutti is about to begin. Do you hear other alterations of solo and tutti parts throughout this concerto?

Can you hear a different cello from the orchestra also play a solo in the second, slow movement and “sing” in a duet back and forth with the main cello soloist? This duet between the solo instrument and the same instrument in the main orchestra was a new feature at this time, although Robert’s wife Clara had also used this idea in her Piano Concerto Op. 7. Some musicians think that the duet between the two cellos in the second movement was meant to be a conversation between Robert Schumann and his wife Clara.

Can you hear another duet like effect where the solo cello has a dialogue with the woodwind section in the final, third movement?

Can you hear when the cello gets to play a more virtuosic section all by itself towards the end of the third movement? This more showy section featuring the solo cello is called a cadenza.

3 Can you identify the mood Schumann is trying to create in each movement? How does Schumann use tempo (the speed of the music), dynamics (the volume of the music), and expression (musical elements that express certain feelings or dispositions) to create different and changing moods? Can you hear how Schumann creates dramatic contrast between the slow second movement and the more energetic and faster rondo of the third movement?

Can you hear when the tempo of the music changes and gets faster or slower? Can you hear rubato (expressive and rhythmic freedom) effects such as in the opening theme of the first movement? How does that affect the mood of the work?

The concerto features sudden changes in dynamics. Can you hear when one section is played loudly followed by a sudden and unexpected quiet section? Can you hear when the music switches back and forth between loud and quiet sounds? Can you hear when the music gets louder (crescendo) or gets quieter (decrescendo)?

Do you hear musical sounds that are short sounding (staccato) or very smooth sounding (legato) as in the solo cello part? Can you hear the strings plucking the strings at the very opening of the concerto? This technique is called pizzicato. Do you hear other places where the strings play pizzicato?

Where do you hear suddenly loud sounds (accents)? For example listen to see if the cello plays an accent on only its second note of the concerto (sometimes the soloist omits this accent marked by Schumann in the score). Can you hear the solo cello play other accents? Can you hear an accent played by all the members of the orchestra a few bars before the end of the first movement?

Do you hear special effects in the string instruments? Can you hear where the solo cello plays double stops in the second, slow movement? A double stop is when two notes are played at the same time on one of the string instruments. Can you hear where the strings play fast tremolos (a very fast back and forth movement of the bow on the same note)?

Can you hear how Schumann uses expressive effects to create contrasts so that the music sounds at times confident and at other times, more shy? How does he create that effect?

4 How is rhythm used in this concerto? Do you hear sections that have a steady rhythm or beat that you could tap to?

The opening movement begins with three plucked chords on beat one of each bar of 4 beats. Can you hear long chords played by the other instruments at the same time that the strings are plucking their three chords? Can you slowly count 1 2 3 4 and clap or tap on beat one when each of the chords is played? After the three plucked chords, can you hear the strings play a steady rhythmic accompaniment pattern underneath the solo cello melody? Can you hear any other repeated rhythmic patterns in this work?

Does any particular rhythmic pattern stand out for you that you could listen for in this concerto? Can you hear the use of triplet patterns (3 notes to a beat) anywhere in the concerto, for example at the end of the first movement and played pizzicato by the strings in the second movement?

Can you hear syncopated rhythms (off-beat rhythms) throughout this concerto? Can you hear syncopations in the orchestral accompaniment and in the offbeat bass notes in the first movement? Some musicians think the off-beat rhythms sound like a heart beating in an agitated way.

Can you hear dotted rhythms (long followed by short sounds)?

5 How are pitch and melody used in this concerto?

Do you hear high sounds or pitches? Do you hear low sounds or pitches? Can you hear when a melody suddenly jumps much higher or lower? Do you hear places in the concerto where the cello plays very fast up and down melodic scale patterns?

Can you hear where the cello sounds almost like it is singing the melodies or themes? This melodic quality in Schumann’s concerto is call lyrical.

Do you hear the melody fragments or motifs discussed above recurring throughout the concerto?

In the second, slow movement, do you hear the “Clara motif” mentioned above — a note followed by another note five notes lower (a descending fifth)?

Do you hear places in the concerto where the music may sound dissonant to your ears? Dissonant sounds can be described as clashing sounds or a sound where the notes don’t seem to fit together. Schumann creates dissonance in his concerto by using appoggiaturas (short notes just before a main melody note), long notes held in the orchestra parts (pedal tones), and unusual intervals between notes such as the augmented sixth.

6 Can you hear different kinds of texture (the combination and interaction of melodic and harmonic parts) in this work? There are dramatic texture changes in this concerto. Can you hear several different texture changes in a very short space of time (mm. 279-285) where in only seven bars Schumann switches between the sounds of a full orchestral tutti, a wind quintet, and a string quintet including the solo cello and a solo double bass?

Where do you hear the cello playing as a solo instrument or featured above a quieter accompaniment by the orchestra as in the beginning of the work? Where do you hear lots of instruments playing together (tutti) so that the sound is thick? Where do you hear just a few instruments playing? Can you hear which instruments are playing? Do you hear instruments playing the same notes all together? When two or more instruments play the same pitch, the effect is known as unison.

7 What kinds of instrumental timbre do you hear? Timbre refers to different qualities of sound, for example the kinds of sounds that the string instruments make when they play together. When does the timbre of the music change because Schumann adds or takes away different instruments? At the opening of the concerto, does the quality of sound in the introductory pizzicato string chords suggest the timbre of a harp to you?

In his concerto writing, Schumann made use of the sounds of a valve horn, a new invention at the time. Can you hear the unique sound quality of a horn? Can you hear where it is featured or where it might sound menacing (for example, after the second movement)?

How does the timbre change in the second slow movement Andante when the main solo cello plays in duet with the cello in the orchestra? How does the timbre change again when the main solo cello plays a duet with the woodwinds in the third movement? Do you hear different instruments or instrument groups calling back and forth together at different points in the concerto?


Reflections and Responses (K-8 Valuing; 9-12 Responding)

Grades 9-12 Responding

The learner develops and uses critical reflection and thinking for music learning:

  • the learner generates initial reactions to music experiences
  • the learner critically listens to, observes, and describes music experiences
  • the learner analyzes and interprets music experiences
  • the learner constructs meanings about music experiences

Grades K-8 Valuing

Students analyze, reflect on, and construct meaning in response to their own and others’ music:

  • students analyze their own and others
  • musical excerpts, works, and performances
  • students form personal responses to and construct meaning from their own and others’ music

1 What is your immediate response to this music? Does this music sound like any other music you have heard before? What does this music make you think of? Have you heard any other music by Schumann?

2 What adjectives might describe the mood that you felt when listening to this concerto? Can you identify what musical elements may have created that mood for you? When did the mood change and why?

3 What musical elements did you enjoy or find interesting? Did you enjoy the melodies that you heard? Did the rhythms, dynamics, or tempos used by Schumann help make this work exciting? Soothing? Did you hear parts of the concerto that made you feel peaceful or calm and if so, what part of the concerto were they in? Were there any parts that sounded particularly dramatic to you? If so, which movement did you hear them in and why did they feel dramatic to you?

4 Were there parts of the concerto that you did not enjoy? Why or why not? Can you identify which music elements made you enjoy or not enjoy the music?

5 Different people often have different responses to the same music. Ask someone else who heard the same music about their response to Schumann’s Concerto in A minor Op. 129.

6 What feelings did it seem that Schumann was trying to communicate to his audience about this work? What music elements seemed to be important to him? Is there other music by Robert Schumann that you could listen to and compare to the sounds and experience of the Cello Concerto? Could you find music written by his wife Clara Schumann?

7 Could you listen to a cello concerto by a different composer and compare it with Schumann’s cello concerto? You might be interested in listening to the classic cello concertos by Haydn such as his cello concerto No. 1 in C major or his Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major. Or you might be interested in listening to another romantic cello concerto such as the Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 (1872) also written in A minor.