The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky between November 1874 and February 1875. It was revised in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888. It is considered one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky's works and among the best known of all piano concerti.
The concerto follows the traditional form of three movements:
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito (B flat minor → B flat major)
Andantino semplice – Prestissimo (D flat major)
Allegro con fuoco (B flat minor → B flat major)
Question of the introduction
Main theme of the First Piano Concerto, as played on the piano.
The well-known theme of the introductory section to the first movement does not repeat curiously anywhere else in the concerto. What ensues is the actual first theme of the concerto (in the home key of B-flat minor) which is based on a melody that Tchaikovsky heard performed by blind beggar-musicians at a market in Kamenka, near Kiev in Ukraine. This well known opening passage in the concerto, was notable for a considerable time after its composition on its apparent formal independence from the movement and the concerto as a whole. This sense of independence seemed to be highlighted by being not in the work's nominal key of B flat minor but in the relative major key of D-flat. Despite its very substantial nature, the theme is only heard twice, and never subsequently reappears in the concerto. Musicologist Francis Maes writes that because of its independence from the rest of the work,
For a long time, the introduction posed an enigma to analysts and critics alike.... The key to the link between the introduction and what follows is ... Tchaikovsky's gift of hiding motivic connections behind what appears to be a flash of melodic inspiration. The opening melody comprises the most important motivic core elements for the entire work, something that is not immediately obvious, owing to its lyric quality. However, a closer analysis shows that the themes of the three movements are subtly linked. Tchaikovsky presents his structural material in a spontaneous, lyrical manner, yet with a high degree of planning and calculation.
Maes continues by mentioning that all the themes are tied together by a strong motivic link. These themes include the Ukrainian folk song "Oy, kryatshe, kryatshe ..." as the first theme of the first movement proper, the French chansonette, "Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire." (Translated as: One must have fun, dance and laugh) in the middle section of the second movement and a Ukrainian vsnyanka or greeting to spring which appears as the first theme of the finale; the second theme of the finale is motivically derived from the Russian folk song "Podoydi, podoydy vo Tsar-Gorod" and also shares this motivic bond. The relationship between them has often been ascribed to chance because they were all well known songs at the time Tchaikovsky composed the concerto. It seems likely, though, that he used these songs precisely because of their motivic connection and used them where he felt necessary. "Selecting folkloristic material," Maes writes, "went hand in hand with planning the large-scale structure of the work."
Tchaikovsky authority Professor David Brown essentially agrees with Maes, further suggesting that Alexander Borodin's First Symphony may have given him both the idea to write such an introduction and to link the work motivically as he does, though he also mentions a four-note musical phrase ciphered from Tchaikovsky's own name and a three-note phrase likewise taken from the name of soprano Désirée Artôt, with whom the composer had been engaged some years before.
Disagreement with Rubinstein
There is some confusion as to whom the concerto was originally dedicated. It was long thought that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated the work to Nikolai Rubinstein, and Michael Steinberg writes that Rubinstein's name is crossed off the autograph score. However, Brown writes that there is actually no truth in the assertion that the work was written to be dedicated to Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky did hope that Rubinstein would perform the work at one of the 1875 concerts of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow. For this reason he showed the work to him and another musical friend, Nikolai Hubert, at the Moscow Conservatory on December 24, 1874/January 5, 1875, just three days after finishing its composition. Brown writes, "This occasion has become one of the most notorious incidents in the composer's biography." Three years later Tchaikovsky shared what happened with his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck:
I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single remark! If you knew how stupid and intolerable is the situation of a man who cooks and sets before a friend a meal, which he proceeds to eat in silence! Oh, for one word, for friendly attack, but for God's sake one word of sympathy, even if not of praise. Rubinstein was amassing his storm, and Hubert was waiting to see what would happen, and that there would be a reason for joining one side or the other. Above all I did not want sentence on the artistic aspect. My need was for remarks about the virtuoso piano techinque. R's eloquent silence was of the greatest significance. He seemed to be saying: "My friend, how can I speak of detail when the whole thing is antipathetic? I fortified myself with patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, "Well?" Then a torrent poured from Nikolay Grigoryevich's mouth, gentle at first, then more and more growing into the sound of a Jupiter Tonana. It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. "Here, for instance, this—now what's all that? (he caricatured my music on the piano) "And this? How can anyone ..." etc., etc. The chief thing I can't reproduce is the tone in which all this was uttered. In a word, a disinterested person in the room might have thought I was a maniac, a talented, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician. Having noted my obstinate silence, Hubert was astonished and shocked that such a ticking off was being given to a man who had already written a great deal and given a course in free composition at the Conservatory, that such a contemptuous judgment without appeal was pronounced over him, such a judgment without appeal was pronounced over him, such a judgment as you would not pronounce over a pupil with the slightest talent who had neglected some of his tasks—then he began to explain N.G.'s judgment, not disputing it in the least but just softening that which His Excellency had expressed with too little ceremony.
I was not only astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition, and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are delivered so harshly and unfriendlily. I need and shall always need friendly criticism, but there was nothing resembling friendly criticism. It was indiscriminate, determined censure, delivered in such a way as to wound me to the quick. I left the room without a word and went upstairs. In my agitation and rage I could not say a thing. Presently R. enjoined me, and seeing how upset I was he asked me into one of the distant rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. "I shall not alter a single note," I answered, "I shall publish the work exactly as it is!" This I did.
Tchaikovsky biographer John Warrack mentions that, even if Tchaikovsky were restating the facts in his favor, "it was, at the very least, tactless of Rubinstein not to see how much he would upset the notoriously touchy Tchaikovsky.... It has, moreover, been a long-enduring habit for Russians, concerned about the role of their creative work, to introduce the concept of 'correctness' as a major aesthetic consideration, hence to submit to direction and criticism in a way unfamiliar in the West, from Balakirev and Stasov organizing Tchaikovsky's works according to plans of their own, to, in our own day, official intervention and the willingness of even major composers to pay attention to it."
Warrack adds that Rubinstein's criticisms fell into three categories. First, he thought the writing of the solo part was bad, "and certainly there are passages which even the greatest virtuoso is glad to survive unscathed, and others in which elaborate difficulties are almost inaudible beneath the orchestra." Second, he mentioned "outside influences and unevenness of invention ... but it must be conceded that the music is uneven and that [it] would, like all works, seem the more uneven on a first hearing before its style had been properly understood." Third, the work probably sounded awkward to a conservative musician such as Rubinstein. While the introduction in the "wrong" key of D flat (for a composition supposed to be written in B flat minor) may have taken Rubinstein aback, Warrrack explains, he may have been "precipitate in condemning the work on this account or for the formal structure of all that follows."
Brown writes that it is not known why Tchaikovsky next approached German pianist Hans von Bülow to premiere the work, although the composer had heard Bülow play in Moscow earlier in 1874 and had been taken with the pianist's combination of intellect and passion, and the pianist was likewise an admirer of Tchaikovsky's music. Bülow was preparing to go on a tour of America. This meant that the concerto would be premiered half a world away from Moscow. Brown suggests that Rubinstein's comments may have deeply shaken him about the concerto, though he did not change the work and finished orchestrating it the following month, and that his confidence in the piece may have been so shaken that he wanted the public to hear it in a place where he would not have to personally endure any humiliation if it did not fare well. Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Bülow, who described the work as "so original and noble" (although he later dropped the concerto from his repertoire).
The first performance of the original version took place on October 25, 1875 in Boston, Massachusetts, conducted by Benjamin Johnson Lang and with Bülow as soloist. Bülow had initially engaged a different conductor, but they quarrelled, and Lang was brought in at short notice. Although the premiere was a resounding success, George Whitefield Chadwick, who was in the audience, recalled in a memoir years later: "They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the ‘tutti’ in the middle of the first movement, whereupon Bülow sang out in a perfectly audible voice, The brass may go to hell". Interestingly, Benjamin Johnson Lang himself appeared as soloist in a performance of the concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on February 20, 1885, under Leopold Damrosch.
The Russian premiere took place on November 13, 1875 in Saint Petersburg, with the Russian pianist Gustav Kross and Czech conductor Eduard Nápravník. In Tchaikovsky's estimation, Kross reduced the work to "an atrocious cacophony". The Moscow premiere took place on December 3, 1875, with Sergei Taneyev as soloist. The conductor was none other than Nikolai Rubinstein, the same man who had comprehensively criticised the work less than a year earlier. Rubinstein had come to see its merits, and he played the solo part many times throughout Europe. He even insisted that Tchaikovsky entrust the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto to him, and would have done so had he had not died. At that time, Tchaikovsky considered rededicating the work to Taneyev, who had performed it splendidly, but ultimately the dedication went to von Bülow.
Despite his declaring to Rubinstein that he would "publish the concerto exactly as it stands" (something that the composer actually did), in 1876 Tchaikovsky happily accepted advice on improving the piano writing from German pianist Edward Dannreuther, who had given the London premiere of the work, and from Russian pianist Alexander Siloti several years later. The full chords played by the soloist at the opening of the concerto may in fact have been Siloti's idea, as they do not appear in the first two editions of the concerto. In the two earlier editions, the piano plays arpeggios over a limited range of the keyboard while the strings play the opening theme.
Also arranged for two pianos by Tchaikovsky, December 1874; revised December 1888.
Tchaikovsky revised it three times, the last being in 1888, which is the version usually now played. One of the most prominent differences between the original and final versions is that in the opening section, the virile octave chords played by the pianist, over which the orchestra plays the famous theme, were originally written as tame arpeggios.
Vladimir Horowitz performed this piece as part of a World War II fund-raising concert in 1943, with his father-in-law, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Two separate performances of Horowitz playing the concerto and Toscanini conducting were eventually released on records and CDs - the live 1943 rendition, and an earlier studio recording made in 1941.
This piece was also further popularized among many Americans when it was used as the theme to Orson Welles' famous "Mercury Theatre" Radio Program. The Concerto came to be associated with Welles throughout his career and was often played when introducing him as a guest on both radio and television. The main theme was also made into a popular song titled Tonight We Love, by bandleader Freddy Martin in 1941.
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years, 1874–1878, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983). ISBN 0-393-01707-9.
Friskin, James, "The Text of Tchaikovsky's B-flat-minor Concerto," Music & Letters50(2):246-251 (1969).
Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
Norris, Jeremy, The Russian Piano Concerto (Bloomington, 1994), Vol. 1: The Nineteenth Century. ISBN 0-253-34112-4.
Poznansky, Alexander Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991). ISBN 0-02-871885-2.