Tchaikovsky: Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on April 25 (old style)/May 7 (new style), 1840, at Votkinsk, in the district of Viatka, Russia, some seven hundred miles east-northeast of Moscow, and died on October 25/November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg. (All further dates are given according to the new style Gregorian calendar which was adopted in Russia in 1918 and corresponds to the modern Western calendar.) Tchaikovsky composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in November and December 1874, with the orchestration being completed on February 21, 1875; he revised the work in 1876 and again in 1889. The concerto was premiered on October 25, 1875, at the Music Hall in Boston, with Hans von Bülow (its dedicatee) as soloist and with Benjamin Johnson Lang conducting a freelance orchestra. Tina Lerner was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performance, in November 1912, with Henry Hadley conducting. In the most recent performances, in March and April 2011, Yundi was soloist and Herbert Blomstedt conducted. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about thirty-five minutes.

Nicolai Grigorevich Rubinstein, Director of the Moscow Conservatory from its founding in 1866 until his death in 1881, was the man Tchaikovsky hoped would introduce his B-flat minor Piano Concerto. The list of Tchaikovsky premieres that Rubinstein led tells its own story of the closeness of the two men, but their encounter over the Piano Concerto No. 1 was a disaster. Tchaikovsky, telling the story three years after the event, still trembled with hurt and rage. “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 replied.”

Tchaikovsky had a similar collision with Leopold Auer over the Violin Concerto. The two stories, moreover, had parallel happy endings. As Auer and pupils of his like Heifetz, Elman, Milstein, and Zimbalist eventually became particularly associated with the Violin Concerto, so did Rubinstein become an ardent champion of the Piano Concerto, and his pupils were among the first generation of pianists who established it as indispensable.

The premiere, however, took place far from home, in Boston’s Music Hall. Hans Guido von Bülow, ten years older than Tchaikovsky, had a distinguished double career as pianist and conductor. He had been particularly associated with the Wagnerian movement, had led the premieres of Tristan and Meistersinger, and would later become an important interpreter of Brahms and give the young Richard Strauss his first lift up the career ladder. Von Bülow’s young wife Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt, had by degrees left him for Wagner during the second half of the sixties and, much embittered, he retired from the concert stage for some years. He resumed his career in 1872 and in March 1874 gave a recital at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. Tchaikovsky was stirred by the combination of intellect and passion in von Bülow’s playing; von Bülow, in turn, liked Tchaikovsky’s music.

Von Bülow was happy to accept the dedication in Rubinstein’s stead and made arrangements to introduce the concerto at the fifth of a series of concerts in Boston. The pianist sent the composer a telegram announcing the triumphant reception of the work, and Tchaikovsky spent most of his available cash, of which just then he had very little, on a return message. Von Bülow consolidated his success by repeating the concerto at his matinee five days later, and upon his return to Europe he introduced it as speedily as possible in London and at other musical centers.

The music hardly needs explication. Listeners of sufficient antiquity will remember that the theme of the introduction flourished in the early 1940s as a pop song, “Tonight We Love.” Tchaikovsky himself had borrowed two of the concerto’s other melodies. The hopping theme that starts the Allegro is a song traditionally sung by blind beggars in Little Russia, while the scherzo-like interlude in the middle of the second movement is a song, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire,” from the repertory of Désirée Artôt, a superb Belgian soprano whom Tchaikovsky courted briefly in the winter of 1868-69.

Tchaikovsky’s biographer David Brown suggests that Artôt might shed light on some features of the concerto. Behind this speculation lies the fact that since the Renaissance composers have enjoyed encoding verbal messages, usually names or initials, into pieces of music, spelling these messages out through the letter-names of pitches. (German terminology is particularly accommodating in that it makes available H, which is our B—German B is our B-flat—and also Es, which is E-flat.) The gist of Brown’s idea is that Tchaikovsky uses German pitch-names and that the sequence D-flat/A—in German Des/A—stands for DESirée Artôt. Those notes begin the second main theme of the first movement, the lyric, slightly swaying theme first played by clarinets and bassoons, then at once repeated on the piano.

Brown suggests that Tchaikovsky may have been recalling “the one ‘affair’ of his own life.” Brown presents his idea with caution, but even the suggestion that cherchez la femme could be a factor in the life of this powerfully appealing composition adds a pleasing touch of intrigue.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings—Yefim Bronfman  with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony (Sony Classics)  |  Sviatoslav Richter with Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  Yevgeny Sudbin with John Neschling and the São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra (BIS)  |  Gary Graffman with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (CBS Great Performances)    

Reading—Tchaikovsky, a multi-volume life-and-works set by David Brown (Norton)  |  Tchaikovsky Remembered,edited by Brown (Faber & Faber)  |  Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes, edited by Alexander Poznansky (Indiana University Press)  |  Tchaikovsky, by Anthony Holden (Bantam)