Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 1
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was neither the greatest nor the most innovative
musician of his time, yet his contributions to music are still felt today,
for it was his gift to write beautiful, evocative melodies that are not
easily forgotten. From the love theme of the Romeo and Juliet Overture
(1870), to the music of Swan Lake (1877) or his Sixth Symphony (Pathétique,
1893), to the well-known opening of the Piano Concerto No. 1, his music has
become almost inescapable, a part of the collective conscious.
Yet the oft-told tale of the Piano Concerto's conception reminds us that
even Tchaikovsky's melodies could fail to charm. He completed the work in
December of 1874, and dedicated it to his teacher and friend, the great
Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. Rubinstein's brother Anton had brought
Tchaikovsky to Moscow in 1866 as a music theory teacher for the new Moscow
Conservatory; Tchaikovsky roomed with Nikolai, and the brothers promoted the
young composer's works in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky was not a
pianist and wanted Nikolai's opinion about the suitability of his first
piano concerto. So on Christmas Eve, Tchaikovsky played it for his mentor.
He described the scene in a letter to a friend: "I played the first
movement. Not a word, not a remark. If you only knew how disappointing, how
unbearable it is when a man offers his friend a dish of his work, and the
other eats and remains silent!" Tchaikovsky played the entire piece and
then, he wrote, Rubinstein told him it was "worthless, impossible to play,
the themes have been used before ... there are only two or three pages that
can be salvaged and the rest must be thrown away!"
Rubinstein offered to play the piece if Tchaikovsky rewrote it, but the
composer replied, "I won't change a single note," and instead gave it to the
pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow did not share Rubinstein's
distate, and premiered the work in Boston on October 25, 1875. Though a
critic there called it an "extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern
Russian Concerto," the audience was enthusiastic, as was a second audience
in New York a week later, demanding an encore of the final movement.
Rubinstein later recanted and performed the piece as well, while fifteen
years later Tchaikovsky made some of the changes Rubinstein had requested.
Rubinstein's criticisms still have merit, for the piece is in some places
nearly unplayable, while other passages for the soloist are barely audible.
And the famous opening theme, for all its grandeur, is just as remarkable in
its disappearance -- for after storming in with blaring horns calls,
sweeping strings, and maestoso ascending chords from the piano, the theme
continues for only 110 measures and simply drops out of the piece, never to
be heard again.
Yet it is at that point that the first movement, Allegro, may be said to
truly begin. Two themes are introduced in double exposition, with the
athletic first theme reappearing to interrupt the more restrained second at
dramatic moments, and the piano "indulging in cadenza-like flights of
startling execution," as the Boston reviewer wrote in 1875. The movement
ends in a burst of pyrotechnics from both orchestra and soloist.
The gentle Andantino simplice offers a respite from the bold gyrations of
its predecessor, with the flute, oboe, and viola taking turns with the solo
piano to develop the gentle, lilting first theme. The second theme is a
rapid scherzo, based on a French song, "Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire"
(One must amuse one's self by dancing and laughing), a song favored by the
opera singer Désirée Artôt, with whom Tchaikovsky had once been infatuated.
The first theme for the final Allegro is based on a Ukrainian folk song,
"Viydi, viydi Ivanku," (Come, come Ivanku), and it dances up and down in
brilliant syncopations. A second, more lyrical theme sweeps in above the
virtuosic piano line, and the piano answers in kind. The two themes build to
a maestoso tutti followed by bravura fireworks all around.