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Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23

Tchaikovsky’s now wildly popular first piano concerto had a rough start. He had hoped it would be premiered by his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, but Rubinstein declared it “worthless and unplayable.” Hans von Bülow gave the highly successful premiere in October 1875 in Boston.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 between November 1874 and February 21, 1875. The first performance took place at the Music Hall in Boston on October 25, 1875, with Hans von Bülow as soloist and B.J. Lang conducting.

In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings (violins I and II, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 37 minutes long.

Nikolai Grigorievich Rubinstein, who Tchaikovsky hoped would be the first to play his B-flat minor piano concerto and who did actually conduct the premiere of his first four symphonies, of Eugene Onegin, and of a whole run of shorter works including Romeo and Juliet, Marche slave, Francesca da Rimini, the Suite No. 1, Capriccio italien, and the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, was born in Moscow in 1835, trained in law as well as in music, and was director of the Moscow Conservatory from its founding in 1866 until his death in 1881. He was younger brother to Tchaikovsky’s teacher, the famous Anton Rubinstein, and though generally not quite so highly esteemed as a pianist was considered the better conductor and teacher of the two. The list of Tchaikovsky premieres he led between 1866 and 1880 tells its own story of the closeness of the two men, but their encounter over the B-flat minor piano concerto was a disaster, Tchaikovsky having gone to Rubinstein for advice (“he was not only the best pianist in Moscow but also a first-rate all-round musician,” wrote Tchaikovsky) only to be told that his work was “worthless and unplayable…beyond rescue…bad, vulgar…,” leaving the composer astonished and outraged.

A few years later, 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 Sergey Taneyev, Alexander Siloti, and Emil von Sauer constituted with Hans von Bülow, Vassily Sapelnikov, and Adele aus der Ohe the first generation of pianists who established it as indispensable.

The premiere took place far from home, in Boston’s Music Hall, now the Orpheum Theatre on Washington Street. 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 1860s, 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. Soon after, he took the opportunity of smuggling a good word for Tchaikovsky into an article on Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar:

At the present moment we know but one other who, like Glinka, strives and aspires, and whose works—although they have not yet attained to full maturity—give complete assurance that such maturity will not fail to come. I refer to the young professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory—Tchaikovsky. A beautiful string quartet of his has won its way in several German cities. Many other works by him merit equal recognition—his piano compositions, two symphonies, and an uncommonly interesting Romeo and Juliet Overture, which commends itself by its originality and its luxuriant melodic flow. Thanks to his many-sidedness, this composer will not run the danger of being neglected abroad as Glinka was.

Von Bülow was happy to accept the dedication in Rubinstein’s stead and made arrangements to introduce the “Grand Concerto (Op. 23) in B-flat,” as the program had it, at the fifth of a series of concerts in Boston. The audience was informed

that the above grand composition of Tschaikowsky, the most eminent Russian maestro of the present day, completed last April and dedicated by its author to Hans von Bülow, has NEVER BEEN PERFORMED, the composer himself never having enjoyed an audition of his masterpiece. To Boston is reserved the honor of its initial representation and the opportunity to impress the first verdict on a work of surpassing musical interest.

Von Bülow sent the composer a telegram announcing the triumphant reception of the concerto, 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 introduced it as speedily as possible in London and at other musical centers. The Boston concert was a strenuous one for von Bülow, who also played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and Liszt’s version with orchestra of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. (There were also overtures by Spohr and Beethoven, and Mendelssohn’s Wedding March to finish up with.) And one does wonder what it all sounded like with B.J. Lang’s orchestra with its four first violins!

Listeners of sufficient antiquity will remember that the theme of the introduction flourished in the early ’40s as a pop song; the title was “Tonight we love,” and the meter was stretched on the rack from three beats in the measure to four. 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 the Ukraine, while the scherzo-like interlude in the middle of the second movement is a song, “Il fau s’amuser, danser et rire,” from the repertoire of Désirée Artôt, a superb Belgian soprano whom Tchaikovsky courted briefly in the winter of 1868-69.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1976 to 1979, and after that of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. Oxford University Press has published three compilations of his program notes, devoted to symphonies, concertos, and the great works for chorus and orchestra.

The first Boston Symphony performance of music from this concerto was of just the first movement, on March 15, 1883, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, with soloist B.J. Lang and Georg Henschel conducting. The BSO's first complete performance, also with Lang as soloist, took place on February 21, 1885, under Wilhelm Gericke.