Tchaikovsky’s Endearing First Piano Concerto

Most great artists are acutely misunderstood. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was no exception to this belief. When he composed his Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23, the pianist he had hoped to impress, Nicolai Grigorevich Rubinstein, gave it a scathing review. Rubinstein felt it was, in a word, a disaster. He called it ‘unplayable, vulgar and badly written.’ If Tchaikovsky wanted him to perform it, he’d have to make several alterations. The composer, being the glorious virtuoso he was, refused. Instead, he dedicated it to another pianist, Hans Guido von Bülow, and it premiered at the Music Hall in Boston on October 25, 1875, with von Bülow as soloist. The concerto has been a hit ever since.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1874

The concerto was a challenge for Tchaikovsky who did not have previous writing experience for piano and orchestra. Yet his orchestrations were masterful. He had already completed his Symphony nos. 1, 2 and 3 (1868, 1873, and 1875 respectively), and the “Fantasy Overture” from Romeo and Juliet (1870) by the time he wrote his piano concerto. His famous ballets – Swan Lake (1876), The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1891-92) are adored for their incredible, brilliant instrumentation.

His music was inspired by folk tunes, and the opening movement from this first piano concerto was pulled from a Ukrainian folk song. Tchaikovsky’s alleged plagiarism added to Rubinstein’s denunciation of the piece. The opening of the brass and piano meld with the strings to create a specific motif. The lyrical mood transitions into a quieter conversation, and the trumpet signals a change in tempo with piano and orchestra. The second movement is both warm and romantic, while the final movement offers the essence of Ukrainian folk music once again. The entire work is both energetic and poetic.

Following the concerto’s triumphant success, Rubinstein later admitted he was wrong in his opinion and performed it many times himself.

Tchaikovsky never allowed distressing opinions, misunderstandings or even the trials he suffered in his own life, to deter him from his goals. Ever the working artist, he went on to compose string quartets, two more piano concertos, three more symphonies, two operas, two symphonic poems, and other familiar pieces, such as his 1812 Overture in E-flat and Violin Concerto in D. His genius continues to thrive through the talents of other gifted musicians today.

Tell us—what makes Tchaikovsky’s music endearing to you?

Upcoming Tchaikovsky “Piano Concerto no. 1” Performances:
Dec. 31, 2010

with Lang Lang
New York Philharmonic

Jan. 6 – 8, 2011
with Stephen Hough
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Feb. 4 – 6, 2011
with Denis Matsuev
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

March 30 – April 2, 2011
with Yundi Li
San Francisco Symphony

March 31 – April 3, 2011
with Olga Kern
Dallas Symphony Orchestra

May 5 – 7, 2011
with Yefim Bronfman
National Symphony Orchestra

May 26 – 28, 2011
with Olga Kern
Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Upcoming Performances:
Dec. 28 – 30, 2011

Vivaldi: Concerto for Four Violins
with Violinists Sheryl Staples, Michelle Kim,
Marc Ginsberg, Lisa Kim
Hindemith: Horn Concerto
with Philip Smith, trumpet; and Philip Myers, horn
Rouse: Oboe Concerto
with Liang Wang
Ravel: Bolero
New York Philharmonic

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2 Responses to Tchaikovsky’s Endearing First Piano Concerto

  1. R. Leonardo Helton says:

    Beautifully written, J.M. As lyrically eloquent as the Master’s work itself. Can actually “hear” the pieces as you describe them. This is one that is most amazingly performed on an album inclusive of the Rachmaninov No. 2 and Grieg concertos performed by Philippe Entremont. An album long since completely worn out when I was in my teens, long ago.

    • J.M. Lacey says:

      Thank you, R. Leonardo! Tchaikovsky was such an amazing composer. It was a treat for me to listen to some of his compositions this week as I prepared this post. Philippe Entremont…I’ll have to check out some of his work.

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