Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto Analysis Essay

A detailed history and analysis of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concertos, beginning with his first from 1874.

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

The composer's autograph

"In December 1874 I had written a Piano Concerto! Not being a pianist, I considered it necessary to consult a virtuoso as to any points in my Concerto that might be technically impracticable, ungrateful or ineffective. I had need of a severe critic, but at the same time one friendlily disposed towards me." Thus wrote Tchaikovsky to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, describing the circumstances in which he presented his newly written First Piano Concerto - one of the best-loved in the repertoire today - to his much admired and trusted senior colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolay Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky suffered one of the biggest disappointments of his career when, on Christmas Eve, Rubinstein - who had been so supportive of the composer in the past - rejected the concerto with a rush of scathing criticism, summarily declaring the work ill-composed and unperformable. "I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single remark.... 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...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.... 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 Grigorievich's mouth...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.... a disinterested person in the room might had thought I was a maniac, a talentless, senseless hack who had come to submit his rubbish to an eminent musician..." This unexpected reaction from Rubinstein left the composer totally devastated and sank him into a severe state of depression.

The first page of the full orchestral score, Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

However, so sure was the composer about his creation that upon Rubinstein's gentler admonitions to completely revise the concerto, Tchaikovsky yelled, "I shall not alter a single note. I shall publish the work exactly as it is." - which he did. The determined composer then sent his concerto to Hans von Bülow, who found it "original, noble and powerful." On October 25, 1875, under the direction of Benjamin Johnson Lang, Bülow took the concert world by storm when he presented the work in Boston with unprecedented success. Tchaikovsky conducted the Russian premiere just a few weeks later. After this, Rubinstein reconsidered his position, recognizing the concerto for the masterpiece it is, and added it to his repertoire, playing it quite often throughout Russia. The rift that had ensued between Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein was eventually repaired and, later on, the composer did make a few revisions to the score, primarily in the solo passages.

Tchaikovsky in 1874

One of the last known existing photos of Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky's tomb.

The first movement begins with a lengthy - 106 measure long - introduction marked Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso. At the outset, the horns present a four-note descending motif, punctuated by sharp chords from the rest of the orchestra. The piano then enters with a long series of chords, as the violins play an impassioned theme based on the opening motif. Eventually, the first movement proper, Allegro con spirito, arrives as the piano introduces the main theme with minimal support from the orchestra. One of Rubinstein's criticisms was that he found this an unseemly theme to ennoble by incorporating it into a piano concerto; the theme is derived from a Ukrainian folksong commonly sung by blind beggars. The somewhat more relaxed and stately second theme begins with an ascending scalar motif and ends with descending leaps. Both themes are subjected to a brilliant double exposition, with the exchange of virtuoso and expressive elements and argumentative tension between soloist and orchestra. The soloist has plentiful occasion to shine with its many ornate and rhapsodic passages and several demanding cadenzas.

The contrasting second movement, Andantino semplice, takes the form of a scherzo, but in reverse - instead of the normal fast-slower-fast pattern, a soulful episode surrounds a jaunty middle section. It begins with a tender love theme played by a solo flute against pizzicato strings, and then taken over by the piano. After a contrasting phrase is heard, the oboe once again takes the main melody. Then the piano embarks on a frolicsome scherzando episode marked Allegro vivace assai. Although it does so at first by itself, soon the violas and cellos join in with a melody of their own - the French song Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire ("One must have fun, dance and laugh") which was a favorite of Désirée Artôt, to whom the composer was briefly engaged. After an ingenious reference to the first movement's second theme, the soloist plays a short cadenza that leads into the main love theme once again to conclude the movement.

The last movement, Allegro con fuoco, is built upon a rondo structure with elements of sonata form. After a few introductory measures from the orchestra, the piano presents the main recurring theme; this assertive mazurka-like theme is derived from yet another Ukrainian folksong. Two other subjects come into play here: one is of great significance and bears a syncopated dance rhythm; the other is of a subsidiary nature and gentler in character. The two principal themes are freshly emphasized within a different context each time they are repeated. At the coda, now in the major key, the subsidiary theme finally attains its full import. Then, with minimal intervention from the orchestra and in a flurry of virtuoso playing, the piano rushes to the work's exhilarating conclusion.

Author’s addendum:

•The cover image is Martha Argerich performing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

• Recommended listening: The links below are a great recording in its entirety, performed by one of very favorite pianists, Martha Argerich.  The orchestra itself is a touring group which is not often first- rate, but they do a pretty good job here.  Ms Argerich has never been a frequent touring performer, so seeing her live is always worthwhile.  These are only examples. Please support working artists by purchasing music and art legally. Thank you.


Tchaikovsky(1840-93) - Piano Concerto No. 1

The hypersensitive, insecure Tchaikovsky, his life a procession of alternating peaks of elation and troughs of depression, was a mess of contradictions. He was fond of bold musical gestures yet unimpressed by Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. His confessed weakness was musical form, yet he idolised Mozart. He was a thoroughly competent composer of music for orchestra and for solo piano, yet still craved reassurance from Nicholas Rubenstein regarding his newly-minted First Piano Concerto. Rubenstein was, unfortunately, rather less than enthusiastic. He was, even more unfortunately, also rather less than diplomatic, roundly declaring the work “clumsy and unplayable, when not vulgar and chaotic”. This did little to bolster Tchaikovsky's fragile self-confidence, but he commendably gritted his teeth, declined the many suggested changes, and rededicated the work to Hans von Bülow. 

The first performance, given in Russia in 1875, was quickly followed by its American première, with such success that the finale had to be encored. Although the uncharitable might suspect the influence of potential roubles, Rubenstein subsequently changed his tune and championed it. Tchaikovsky made substantial revisions, but not until 1889, so there was no question of “amicable compromise”. Following four early operas, some orchestral pieces, string quartets, and piano pieces, the essentially “youthful” concerto was the work which thrust him into the limelight and onto the crest of a wave which would produce, within a year, Swan Lake, the Third Symphony, the Rococo Variations and Francesca da Rimini. Then he would succumb to emotional blackmail and marry, precipitating a descent into the deepest of troughs. 

Rubenstein's initial reaction, although distinctly unhelpful, was perhaps understandable. Back then, emotional “excesses” in symphonic poems - or even symphonies - were acceptable, while the concerto remained an arena for serious formal consideration. Rubenstein's outrage seemingly blinded him to the obvious. That bold introduction seemed such an extravagant effusion simply to toss away, yet it is nothing more than a grandiose expansion of the classical “slow introduction”, traditionally a disposable “scene-setter”, a small garden where many a good tune has flowered briefly. Moreover, lurking behind the subsequent “unplayable chaos” are eminently sensible forms. These are, admittedly, generally loose-limbed, the ambitious first movement in particular being a patchwork typical of Tchaikovsky's tussles with his bête noir. But overall he was clearly just amplifying the scale and emotional range of the classical concerto: sonata-form first movement, variational andante, and rondo finale. 

Form was indeed Tchaikovsky's only real weakness: for hummable tunes, vibrant colour, pungent rhythm, and gut-level emotion he was peerless. He saw the concerto as “... dealing with two equal opponents: the orchestra with its power and ... colour, opposed by the small but high-mettled piano which often comes off victorious ...” - in other words, the archetypal Romantic notion of a “battle between soloist and orchestra”. But, does this particular concerto support that view? Notwithstanding the spectacular pyrotechnics, it's less combative than, say, the finale of Brahms' Violin Concerto (which is a right old ding-dong!). There are so many passages of harmonious coexistence, and even when they are embattled I still feel the protagonists are actually “standing shoulder-to-shoulder against some common foe”. 

Grieg's Piano Concerto, written six years earlier, pioneered (I believe) the “Big Tune” finish. Perhaps Tchaikovsky adopted Grieg's idea for this concerto - he certainly admired Grieg, dedicating to him his Hamlet Overture of 1888 - and Rachmaninov, as we know, soon followed suit. 

1. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso - allegro con spirito. That “grandiose” introduction, incorporating (shock, horror!) a major cadenza, no more than properly reflects the scale of the movement. An asymmetric thematic deployment is compensated by an overall evenhandedness, belying that supposed “chaos”. The dotted, regenerative first subject, extensively elaborated by the piano, is kept on a tight leash, whereas the second subject is considerably less restrained. It contains two themes: one introduced by soulful woodwind, the other (on strings) anticipating the Romeo and Juliet “rocking” theme. This, answered by the first subject on woodwind, kicks off (and dominates!) an explosive development. The recapitulation redresses balances: first subject briefly dispatched, second subject's first theme expanded, and second omitted altogether. Focusing on the second subject's first theme, the cadenza finally profers a hint of first subject, over which woodwind courteously intone the second subject's second theme, eventually generating a thundering coda. 

2. Andantino semplice - prestissimo - tempo primo. Over tiptoeing pizzicati, a solo flute sings a tender lullaby, subject of a set of variations in which the piano and orchestra are so intimately entwined they all but stroke one another's hair. Then, right in the middle, comes an episode of startling contrast: the piano scurries around, playfully chased by the orchestra until one loud bang sends both, a bit like naughty children, back to bed and dreaming. This central prestissimo is the one truly bold innovation, an idea utilised by Bartók in the two “Nachtmusiken” of his piano concertos. 

3. Allegro con fuoco. A vigorous, skipping Ukranian dance on the piano invites a stomping orchestral response, leaving a dizzy soloist to be gently stabilised by the strings' graceful counter-subject. Although these materials are continually varied, a classical rondo pattern, ABABA, is unmistakable. The skipping dance's third appearance sees the stomping response sidestepped for a huge, expectant crescendo, climaxing with the counter-subject blared lustily by the two comrades-in-arms. Thence to an exuberant coda on the main subject, as is of course perfectly proper in any concerto of serious formal consideration.

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