Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893. Concerto No. 1 in B flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 23. Completed February 21 1875, first performance October 25, 1875, in Boston. Scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tympani, and strings.

The tale of Tchaikovsky's piano concerto and its rejection by the original dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein, is one of the most famous in music history. Tchaikovsky had begun to achieve some notoriety and success, and in late 1874 he decided to try his luck at the form that Mozart and Beethoven had used to display their own talents so well. He seemed to have difficulty, writing that he had to ``hammer passages... out of my brain'' and ``walk up and down the room for hours'' before ideas came. But the work was soon finished in preliminary form, and in early January of 1875, he asked Rubinstein to listen as he played through it at the Petersburg Conservatory. The intended soloist was not pleased. Three years later, Tchaikovsky described the other man's reaction:

Not one word was said--absolute silence... I got up from the piano. ``Well?'' I said. Then a torrent burst from Rubinstein... My concerto was worthless and unplayable... bad, trivial, vulgar. Only one or two pages had any value.

Eventually, Rubinstein said that he would play the concerto if Tchaikovsky would change it to meet his specifications. But the composer replied, ``I shan't alter a note. I shall publish it as it stands.'' In anger, he crossed Rubinstein's name off the title page and re-dedicated the work to Hans von Bülow, who had recently discovered Tchaikovsky's work. (This was the same von Bülow who had married Liszt's daughter, only to have her abandon him for the rising star of Richard Wagner.)

Von Bülow suffered from none of Rubinstein's reservations, instead calling the work ``lofty, strong, and original.'' Since he was planning an American tour in the fall of 1875, he offered to learn the concerto for that trip. The first performance took place in Boston, followed shortly by one in New York. In both cities the work was tremendously popular with the audiences, who demanded a repeat of the Finale, although the critics were less enthusiastic. But as is frequently the case, the music won the battle against the nay-sayers, and even Rubinstein eventually admitted his error, learned the concerto, and performed it many times.

© 1997, Geoff Kuenning

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