Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb Minor, op. 23

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          Most probably, no composer other than Beethoven has enjoyed the popularity in this country of that of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  His reputation has been secure since his early maturity, and yet, it is equally true that no other major modern composer has endured the distortions and indignities as that imposed upon his personality and personal life after his death.  A welter of factors have been trotted out to “explain” his art and its personal genesis: his sexuality, politics, religious beliefs, social class.  Every generation of musicologists--radical and otherwise--social commentators, and political ideologues has taken its shots at the man.   And, chief among the negative attitudes simply has been the implication that his music is vulgar, overly emotional, and void of intellectual attainment--all clearly a reflection of the composer, himself!

          That said, it is refreshing to see that much of the critical persiflage of the last century is now being replaced by a clearer, less ideologically freighted appreciation.   He is historically important for his integration of the symphonic tradition of Beethoven and Schumann into the colorful, nationalistic atmosphere of Russia.   But, ultimately it is the eloquence and technical mastery of his compositions that founded his lasting popularity.  He was blessed with an extraordinary gift for melodic imagination, and learned to use it in contexts of structural integrity--not a given among the world’s great melodists.

          Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto is a relatively early work, composed when he was about thirty-four years old.  While perhaps other significant composers have achieved greater recognition at an earlier age, Tchaikovsky had enjoyed only modest success by this time.   After graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he was hired by the great Russian pianist, Nikolai Rubinstein as a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, and was composing in his spare time.  It must be admitted that his heart was not really into teaching, understandably preferring to devote himself to composition—which he had pursued avidly for some time.  He had achieved a modicum of success with his second symphony and the evergreen Romeo and Juliet concert overture.  But that is all.  In 1874 a piano concerto seemed to him to be a promising step forward.  By the end of the year he was ready to share his new piano concerto with his colleagues at the conservatory.  That first run through has entered the lore of musical disasters.  The eminent Rubenstein tore into the concerto with a scurrilous and heartless diatribe of invective and condemnation that has become legendary.  “Vulgar,” “worthless,” “unplayable,” and “bad” were just the beginning of the verbal assault.   Tchaikovsky ignored this tirade, and simply went to a more amenable pianist, Hans von Bülow, a distinguished pianist and conductor, whose reaction was essentially the opposite of that of Rubenstein.  Von Bülow was delighted with the concerto and added it to his 1875 tour of the United States, giving its world première in Boston that fall.  It was a smash hit--Von Bülow programmed it over one hundred times during the tour, and its success was secure.

          The four memorable, opening unison horn notes of the first movement herald the beloved—almost impossibly romantic--theme, played by the strings, and accompanied by the stentorian sweeping chords in the piano.  It's a terrific beginning, but a rather odd and completely unconventional beginning for a typical piano concerto of the time, or any other time, for that matter.  For as great as it is, it’s not even the main theme!  Moreover, after the pianist engages in a short solo excursion, the theme gloriously returns, but afterwards is never heard again—that’s it!  Talk about a bait and switch.  A quiet transition takes us to the actual main theme, one that Tchaikovsky famously recounted that he had heard sung by a blind beggar at a fair.  This jerky little theme is bandied about a bit by the woodwinds and soloist before the second theme appears, an elegiac, wistful tune in the solo clarinet, followed by a final, rather meditative idea in the violins.  These ideas are the subject of the rest of an impressive, energetic movement in which the composer efficiently works though his materials, often combining the main themes.  A rather long and sensitive piano cadenza near the end captures the poignancy and emotion of the whole affair, and a driving conclusion features the little tune that closed the opening, first heard in the violins.

          Slow movements of major concertos during the nineteenth century often feature deep, meditative explorations of the more profound moods of art—Beethoven’s come to mind.  But here, Tchaikovsky has crafted a peaceful and light contrast to the dynamic sweep and power of the first movement.  Accompanied by pizzicato strings, the solo flute introduces the bucolic main theme, followed by variations of figuration and orchestra color, all contributing to a decidedly rustic, pleasant atmosphere.  The middle section is a mad dash of sparkling scamper—the experienced listener may be struck by a suggestion of the finale to the Nutcracker.   The composer’s affinity and skill at writing dance music is second to none, but in this case he had adapted a French popular song as his basis. After the excitement, the dreamy opening material soon returns to wrap up this radiant and cheerful diversion.

          Tchaikovsky took inspiration from Russian folksongs in the earlier movements of this concerto, and the vigorous main theme of the last movement is based on one from the Ukraine. Its syncopated accents and repeated rhythms serve well this dancing last movement.  Soon, a contrasting theme, broad and lyrical, provides an ingratiating contrast, and the two main ideas alternate with suitable variation as the conclusion looms.  The jerky, ethnic opening tune is soon eclipsed by the grand romantic tune—setup with a dramatic solo piano introduction.  Both the orchestra and the soloist sing out the big melody, in the familiar way for which our composer is justly famed.  A breathtaking prestissimo careens to the end and seals it all. 

          The question, of course, is what was Rubenstein thinking when he excoriated what is perhaps the most popular piano concerto of all time?   That’s not to be known, of course, but he went on to eat a substantial meal of crow, and became one of the work’s most dedicated exponents.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan