The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky between November 1874 and February 1875. It was revised in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888. The first version received heavy criticism from Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's desired pianist. Rubinstein later repudiated his previous accusations and became a fervent champion of the work. It is one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky's compositions and among the best known of all piano concertos.
The first movement is initiated with four emphatic B-flat minor chords, which leads to a lyrical and passionate theme in D-flat major. This subsidiary theme never appears again throughout the movement. The main theme of the concerto is a Ukrainian folk theme which is contrasted with a romantic theme, both in B-flat minor and featuring some of the melodic contours from the introduction. They are followed by a consoling orchestral A-flat major theme over a pedal point, which is repeated at the end of the exposition after a tumultuous climax in C minor. The development section juxtaposes the folk theme with the romantic theme. The recapitulation features the primary theme in the tonic key, leading into a transposition of the romantic theme and climax in the tonic major, before the excitement is cut short by an interrupted cadence and a piano cadenza. Surprisingly, the movement does not revert to the tonic minor, but instead leads to a triumphant and optimistic coda, concluding in B-flat major with a drum roll.
Main theme of the First Piano Concerto, as played on the piano.
The concerto's first theme, which follows the famous introduction, is based on a melody that Tchaikovsky heard performed by blind beggar-musicians at a market in Kamenka (near Kiev), is notable for its apparent formal independence from the rest of the movement and from the concerto as a whole, especially given its setting not in the work’s nominal key of B-flat minor but rather in D-flat major, that key's relative major. Despite its very substantial nature, this first theme is only heard twice, and it never reappears at any later point in the concerto.
Russian music historian Francis Maes writes that because of its independence from the rest of the work,
[f]or a long time, the introduction posed an enigma to analysts and critics alike.…The key to the link between the introduction and what follows is…Tchaikovsky’s gift of hiding motivic connections behind what appears to be a flash of melodic inspiration. The opening melody comprises the most important motivic core elements for the entire work, something that is not immediately obvious, owing to its lyric quality. However, a closer analysis shows that the themes of the three movements are subtly linked. Tchaikovsky presents his structural material in a spontaneous, lyrical manner, yet with a high degree of planning and calculation.
Maes continues by mentioning that all the themes are tied together by a strong motivic link. These themes include the Ukrainian folk song "Oy, kryatshe, kryatshe…" as the first theme of the first movement proper, the French chansonette, "Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire." (Translated as: One must have fun, dance and laugh) in the middle section of the second movement and a Ukrainian vsnyanka or greeting to spring which appears as the first theme of the finale; the second theme of the finale is motivically derived from the Russian folk song "Podoydi, podoydi vo Tsar-Gorod" and also shares this motivic bond. The relationship between them has often been ascribed to chance because they were all well-known songs at the time Tchaikovsky composed the concerto. It seems likely, though, that he used these songs precisely because of their motivic connection and used them where he felt necessary. "Selecting folkloristic material," Maes writes, "went hand in hand with planning the large-scale structure of the work."
All this is in line with the earlier analysis of the Concerto published by Tchaikovsky authority David Brown, who further suggests that Alexander Borodin's First Symphony may have given the composer both the idea to write such an introduction and to link the work motivically as he does. Brown also identifies a four-note musical phrase ciphered from Tchaikovsky's own name and a three-note phrase likewise taken from the name of soprano Désirée Artôt, to whom the composer had been engaged some years before.
The movement is in ternary form (ABA). After a brief pizzicato introduction, the flute carries the first statement of the theme. The flute's opening four notes are A-flat–E-flat–F–A-flat, while each other statement of this motif in the remainder of the movement substitutes the F for a (higher) B-flat. The British pianistStephen Hough suggests this may be an error in the published score, and that the flute should play a B-flat. After the flute's opening statement of the melody, the piano continues and modulates to F major. After a bridge section, two cellos return with the theme in D-flat major and the oboe continues it. The "A" section ends with the piano holding a high F major chord, pianissimo. The movement's "B" section is in D minor (the relative minor of F major) and marked "allegro vivace assai" or "prestissimo", depending on the edition. It commences with a virtuosic piano introduction before the piano assumes an accompanying role and the strings commence a new melody in D major melody. The "B" section ends with another virtuosic solo passage for the piano, leading into the return of the "A" section. In the return, the piano makes the first, now ornamented, statement of the theme. The oboe continues the theme, this time resolving it to the tonic (D-flat major) and setting up a brief coda which finishes ppp.
The third movement is marked "allegro con fuoco", and involves the interchange between two principal themes roughly in an ABABAB structure. The "A" theme in B-flat minor, based on a Ukrainian folk song, is principally carried by the piano on each occasion. On the first two occasions it develops into a subsidiary theme, in a major key, played by the orchestra. The "B" theme also appears three times, although in very different guises. On the first occasion it is a lyrical string melody in D-flat major, which the piano develops. Its second appearance is in an abridged form and in E-flat major. Its third and final appearance is in B-flat major, after a long and climactic bridge passage. This time it is triumphal, rather than lyrical, and played fortissimo by the orchestra and piano together. This final appearance leads into a B flat major coda marked "allegro vivo".
Tchaikovsky revised the concerto three times, the last being in 1888, which is the version usually now played. One of the most prominent differences between the original and final versions is that in the opening section, the octave chords played by the pianist, over which the orchestra plays the famous theme, were originally written as arpeggios. The work was also arranged for two pianos by Tchaikovsky, in December 1874; this edition was revised December 1888.
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There is some confusion regarding to whom the concerto was originally dedicated. It was long thought that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated the work to Nikolai Rubinstein, and Michael Steinberg writes that Rubinstein's name is crossed off the autograph score. However, Brown writes that there is actually no truth in the assertion that the work was written to be dedicated to Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky did hope that Rubinstein would perform the work at one of the 1875 concerts of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow. For this reason he showed the work to him and another musical friend, Nikolai Hubert, at the Moscow Conservatory on December 24, 1874/January 5, 1875, just three days after finishing its composition. Brown writes, "This occasion has become one of the most notorious incidents in the composer's biography." Three years later Tchaikovsky shared what happened with his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck:
I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single remark! If you knew how stupid and intolerable is the situation of a man who cooks and sets before a friend a meal, which he proceeds to eat in silence! Oh, for one word, for friendly attack, but for God's sake one word of sympathy, even if not of praise. Rubinstein was amassing his storm, and Hubert was waiting to see what would happen, and that there would be a reason for joining one side or the other. Above all I did not want sentence on the artistic aspect. My need was for remarks about the virtuoso piano technique. R's eloquent silence was of the greatest significance. He seemed to be saying: "My friend, how can I speak of detail when the whole thing is antipathetic?" I fortified myself with patience and played through to the end. Still silence. I stood up and asked, "Well?" Then a torrent poured from Nikolay Grigoryevich's mouth, gentle at first, then more and more growing into the sound of a Jupiter Tonana. It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. "Here, for instance, this—now what's all that?" (he caricatured my music on the piano) "And this? How can anyone ..." etc., etc. The chief thing I can't reproduce is the tone in which all this was uttered. In a word, a disinterested person in the room might have thought I was a maniac, a talented, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician. Having noted my obstinate silence, Hubert was astonished and shocked that such a ticking off was being given to a man who had already written a great deal and given a course in free composition at the Conservatory, that such a contemptuous judgment without appeal was pronounced over him, such a judgment as you would not pronounce over a pupil with the slightest talent who had neglected some of his tasks—then he began to explain N.G.'s judgment, not disputing it in the least but just softening that which His Excellency had expressed with too little ceremony.
I was not only astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition, and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are delivered so harshly and unfriendlily. I need and shall always need friendly criticism, but there was nothing resembling friendly criticism. It was indiscriminate, determined censure, delivered in such a way as to wound me to the quick. I left the room without a word and went upstairs. In my agitation and rage I could not say a thing. Presently R. enjoined me, and seeing how upset I was he asked me into one of the distant rooms. There he repeated that my concerto was impossible, pointed out many places where it would have to be completely revised, and said that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. "I shall not alter a single note," I answered, "I shall publish the work exactly as it is!" This I did.
Tchaikovsky biographer John Warrack mentions that, even if Tchaikovsky were restating the facts in his favor, "it was, at the very least, tactless of Rubinstein not to see how much he would upset the notoriously touchy Tchaikovsky.... It has, moreover, been a long-enduring habit for Russians, concerned about the role of their creative work, to introduce the concept of 'correctness' as a major aesthetic consideration, hence to submit to direction and criticism in a way unfamiliar in the West, from Balakirev and Stasov organizing Tchaikovsky's works according to plans of their own, to, in our own day, official intervention and the willingness of even major composers to pay attention to it."
Warrack adds that Rubinstein's criticisms fell into three categories. First, he thought the writing of the solo part was bad, "and certainly there are passages which even the greatest virtuoso is glad to survive unscathed, and others in which elaborate difficulties are almost inaudible beneath the orchestra."Second, he mentioned "outside influences and unevenness of invention ... but it must be conceded that the music is uneven and that [it] would, like all works, seem the more uneven on a first hearing before its style had been properly understood." Third, the work probably sounded awkward to a conservative musician such as Rubinstein. While the introduction in the "wrong" key of D flat (for a composition supposed to be written in B flat minor) may have taken Rubinstein aback, Warrack explains, he may have been "precipitate in condemning the work on this account or for the formal structure of all that follows."
Brown writes that it is not known why Tchaikovsky next approached German pianist Hans von Bülow to premiere the work, although the composer had heard Bülow play in Moscow earlier in 1874 and had been taken with the pianist's combination of intellect and passion, and the pianist was likewise an admirer of Tchaikovsky's music. Bülow was preparing to go on a tour of the United States. This meant that the concerto would be premiered half a world away from Moscow. Brown suggests that Rubinstein's comments may have deeply shaken him about the concerto, though he did not change the work and finished orchestrating it the following month, and that his confidence in the piece may have been so shaken that he wanted the public to hear it in a place where he would not have to personally endure any humiliation if it did not fare well. Tchaikovsky dedicated the work to Bülow, who described the work as "so original and noble" (although he later dropped the concerto from his repertoire).
The first performance of the original version took place on October 25, 1875 in Boston, conducted by Benjamin Johnson Lang and with Bülow as soloist. Bülow had initially engaged a different conductor, but they quarrelled, and Lang was brought in at short notice. According to Alan Walker, the concerto was so popular that Bülow was obliged to repeat the Finale, a fact that Tchaikovsky found astonishing. Although the premiere was a success with the audience, the critics were not so impressed. One wrote that the concerto was "hardly destined ..to become classical". George Whitefield Chadwick, who was in the audience, recalled in a memoir years later: "They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the ‘tutti’ in the middle of the first movement, whereupon Bülow sang out in a perfectly audible voice, The brass may go to hell". However, the work fared much better at its performance in New York Cityon November 22, under Leopold Damrosch.
The Russian premiere took place on November 1/13, 1875 in Saint Petersburg, with the Russian pianist Gustav Kross and the Czech conductor Eduard Nápravník. In Tchaikovsky's estimation, Kross reduced the work to "an atrocious cacophony". The Moscow premiere took place on November 21/December 3, 1875, with Sergei Taneyev as soloist. The conductor was none other than Nikolai Rubinstein, the same man who had comprehensively criticised the work less than a year earlier. Rubinstein had come to see its merits, and he played the solo part many times throughout Europe. He even insisted that Tchaikovsky entrust the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto to him, and the composer would have done so had Rubinstein not died. At that time, Tchaikovsky considered rededicating the work to Taneyev, who had performed it splendidly, but ultimately the dedication went to von Bülow.
Despite his declaring to Rubinstein that he would "publish the concerto exactly as it stands" (something that the composer actually did), in 1876 Tchaikovsky happily accepted advice on improving the piano writing from German pianist Edward Dannreuther, who had given the London premiere of the work, and from Russian pianist Alexander Siloti several years later. The solid chords played by the soloist at the opening of the concerto may in fact have been Siloti's idea, as they appear in the first (1875) edition as rolled chords, somewhat extended by the addition of one or sometimes two notes which made them more inconvenient to play but without significantly altering the sound of the passage. Various other slight simplifications were also incorporated into the published 1879 version. Further small revisions were undertaken for a new edition published in 1890.
The American pianist Malcolm Frager unearthed and performed the original version of the concerto.
Vladimir Horowitz performed this piece as part of a World War II fundraising concert in 1943, with his father-in-law, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Two performances of Horowitz playing the concerto and Toscanini conducting were eventually released on records and CDs - the live 1943 rendition, and an earlier studio recording made in 1941.
The introduction to the first movement was played during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It was used during the final leg of the Olympic torch relay during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Soviet Union.
This piece was also further popularized among many Americans when it was used as the theme to Orson Welles's famous radio series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. The Concerto came to be associated with Welles throughout his career and was often played when introducing him as a guest on both radio and television. The main theme was also made into a popular song titled Tonight We Love, by bandleader Freddy Martin in 1941.
The title cut from Pink Martini's 2009 album Splendor in the Grass employs the famous theme from the first movement.
The concerto is used in the 1971 cult film classic Harold and Maude in the scene in which Harold's mother, played by Vivian Pickles, takes a swim in the pool while Harold, played by Bud Cort, fakes another suicide in the deep end as she calmly swims past.