Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23
solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, basses
notes by James Keays
I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
II. Andantino semplice – Prestissimo
III. Allegro con fuoco
Composed 1874-75; revised 1879, 1888.
First performance: October 25, 1875, Boston, Massachusetts. Hans von Bülow, piano; Benjamin Johnson Lang, conductor.
Although the young Tchaikovsky began music lessons at the age of five and progressed to improvising at the piano by fourteen, none of his teachers detected what was apparently a natural ability to compose. Thus, he was never encouraged to progress beyond the level expected of any average child from a middle-class family. By the age of nineteen, he completed studies at a school of jurisprudence and began a three-year career as an ordinary civil servant in St. Petersburg’s Ministry of Justice. Finally, in 1861, Tchaikovsky gave into his creative urges and began taking composition lessons from Nikolai Zeremba. One year later, Zeremba join the faculty of the newly created Conservatory of Music, and his pupil followed him there. Tchaikovsky permanently abandoned his law career in 1863.
Tchaikovsky would eventually develop into a major figure in 19th century music, due in large part to the influence of two Russian-born, but German-trained, brothers: Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein. Anton, a brilliant pianist often favorably compared to Franz Liszt, was director of the Conservatory and a teacher of orchestration; he was the first strong influence on the young composer’s career. In 1866, Nikolai, an almost equally adept pianist, became the first director of the Moscow Conservatory. In this position, he was able to offer a teaching post to Tchaikovsky. Despite their kindness and occasional financial assistance, the brothers Rubinstein often privately voiced severe reservations about the abilities of their pupil.
In 1874, shortly after completing his Symphony No. 2, Tchaikovsky was to begin what would eventually become his first major success, the Piano Concerto No. 1. Quite naturally, he dedicated the work to Nikolai Rubinstein, and he eagerly performed it privately for his mentor the moment he finished the solo part. It was a disaster. Nikolai, upset at not being consulted on technical matters, sat in absolute silence for several minutes and then subjected Tchaikovsky to extraordinarily severe criticism. He suggested so many changes that carrying them out would have meant a complete rewriting of the work. Tchaikovsky furiously replied, “I’ll not change a note of it!” and rededicated the work to Hans von Bülow, who played the premiere in Boston in 1875. Rubinstein later changed his mind about the concerto and eventually made it a staple of his repertoire. Tchaikovsky, for his part, recovered from his pique and thoroughly revised the piano part in 1889.
Rubinstein’s criticisms were not entirely unjustified. There are elaborate difficulties for the soloist, and many of these passages are virtually inaudible. From a purely formal standpoint, the work is severely flawed. For example, the famous opening theme in the orchestra is in the “wrong” key and is never repeated. It simply stands by itself as a grandiose statement bearing no relationship to what will follow. What does follow, however, is often ingenious, as in the way the second movement functions as both a lyrical slow movement and a scherzo. Despite its flaws and difficult creation, the work has become one of the most popular concertos ever written.
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