Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor

The genesis of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto exhibited a tumultuous relationship between the composer and performer. Tchaikovsky approached his colleague, pianist Nicholas Rubenstein, for comments on its composition, and received unexpectedly harsh criticism that the composer later wrote: “An independent witness of this scene must have concluded I was a talentless maniac, a scribbler with no notion of composing, who had ventured to lay his rubbish before a famous man.” Tchaikovsky was secure in the value of the work, however: “‘I shall not alter a single note’, I replied. ‘I shall publish the work precisely as it stands.’ This intention I actually carried out.”

As James Friskin notes, this was largely true to the extent of the first edition published by Jurgenson in 1875, with the première by Hans von Bülow – to whom the concerto is dedicated – with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of B. J. Lang. However, it was due to the pianist Edward Dannreuther, who first performed the work in England, that certain revisions were made – no doubt, as Friskin notes, due to a more tactful approach to the composer.

Receiving considerable debate in this work is the role of the epic introduction within the first movement. Some say this is intentionally independent from the rest of the work – Hugh MacDonald, for example, is of the opinion that the composer placed “his ‘grandoise portal’ [at] the beginning of the work, never to be heard again. Its passing clears the air for the main Allegro, indeed for the rest of the concerto, and the effect is original and overwhelming.” Others believe that this introduction not only has structural connections, but with connections to Russian folksong. Henry Zajaczkowski suggests that there is a particular link to the folk theme ‘Podoydn, Podydn vo Tsar-Gorod’.

Within the scholarship surrounding this work, perhaps the most interesting observation is by David Brown, who suggests the possibility that the opening of the second subject in the first movement was created from a cipher-generated motif of Désirée Artôt – Tchaikovsky’s ex-fiancée.

Additional reference: “A Note on Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto”, by Edward Garden, (The Musical Times, 1982).

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