Piano Concerto No 1

This article has been generously written for this site by the French Tchaikovsky enthusiast, Gérard Pellerin.  But M Pellerin is far more than an enthusiast – he is a man who has studied both the history and contents of this concerto very thoroughly and, although writing in his second language, gives us a clear and authoritative essay here.  I have made only a few small changes, for the sake of clarity, but I have tried to allow Gérard Pellerin’s words to remain intact.

Here is his commendable article, for which I thank Gérard Pellerin so very much…


Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor concerto is probably the most emblematic of all piano concertos. This work has everything you expect from a piano concerto: “romantic” expressive good tunes,  a symphonic structure of great clarity, brilliant piano writing, and a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra reminiscent of Beethoven with the struggle between two elements that leads to a climax of unparalleled intensity.

Every music lover knows the famous theme of the introduction, and the whole concerto is so appealing that it seems the case that this piece is here to delight us.

But it is a sort of miracle if this concerto came to us. And this for three reasons :

First, Tchaikovsky hated the combination of sound between piano and orchestra. His close friend, Hermann Laroche, remembered that, when they were students together, Tchaikovsky had told him more than once that he would never compose a piece for piano and orchestra because he could not bear the sound of this mixed media.  So the fact that he had the idea to write a piano concerto is really miraculous. Or it is a great chance that he changed his mind.

Secondly,  after the disastrous reception of his concerto by Nicolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow conservatory and one of the greatest pianists of his time for whom Tchaikovsky had the greatest admiration and possibly wanted to dedicate the concerto, he had the will to keep it as it was, and did not follow Rubinstein’s injunctions to rewrite it completely, or worst to destroy it. “I won’t alter a single note; I shall print it exactly as it is stands” said Tchaikovsky.

And third, Tchaikovsky had the idea to dedicate and to send the concerto to Hans von Bülow  (after the clash with Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky put the name of Sergey Taneyev as dedicatee on the score but changed his mind and crossed it out to replace it by Hans von Bülow), and von Bülow was absolutely enthusiastic about the concerto.

He thanked Tchaikovsky in a letter in French (June 1, 1875): “Perhaps it would be presumptuous on my part, being unfamiliar with the whole scope of your works and prodigious talent, to say that, for me, your Op. 23 displays such brilliance and is such a remarkable achievement among your musical works, that you have without doubt enriched the world of music as never before. There is such unsurpassed originality, such nobility, such strength, and there are so many arresting moments throughout this unique conception; there is such a maturity of form, such style—its design and execution, with such consonant harmonies, that I could weary you by listing all the memorable moments which caused me to thank the author—not to mention the pleasure from performing it all. In a word, this true gem shall earn you the gratitude of all pianists”.

Tchaikovsky replied in a letter also in French (July 1, 1875): “I just received the letter you did me the honor to address myself from Hall. I must confess you that it is not without great concern that I expected to learn the judgment that you bear on the concerto, I have dedicated you. I would have been unspeakably sad if this work, I allowed myself to adorn with your illustrious name, had not earned your approval, which should be the to be or not to be* of my concerto. Thus judge, Sir, how your good letter has filled me with joy and happiness. I was far from imagining myself that this composition would attract me from you all flattering expressions to me contained in your letter. Your praises compensate me a hundredfold for any kind of moral snubs and hurtful words. I had and still have to endure in my ambition as a composer. I am proud and happy beyond all expression to have merited the votes of a man of genius, as you, Sir, and look forward to the idea that my work will enjoy the honor of Your masterful interpretation.”

* in English in the text

All this shows how Tchaikovsky has been destabilized by the negative reaction of Rubinstein and how he was inspired to ask von Bülow for the “to be or not to be” of his concerto.

This concerto is a real masterpiece but there are still people who are more inclined to consider the judgment of Nicolay Rubinstein rather than Hans von Bülow’s.

One of their argument is that Tchaikovsky would have changed heavily the composition of his concerto as if he recognized that Rubinstein was partly right. This is wrong.

Of course there had been two revisions of the concerto, but the second version in 1879 was just an improvement of some piano writing in the first movement, the musical material and the overall structure remaining unchanged, and the third version, the one which is mainly played, is in fact, a posthumous one (published in 1894 after the composer death in 1893)and whether Tchaikovsky authorized the changes or if they were the work of other musicians or editors is not solved.  

In fact, it seems that directly after the first performance of the concerto in Moscow (November 21/December 3, 1875) with Taneyev as soloist and Nikolay Rubinstein (!) as conductor, Tchaikovsky decided to make some changes to it. Unfortunately it is not known whether this was the composer’s own idea, or a concession to others; nevertheless, he wrote about this intention to Hans von Bülow in December 1875. In von Bülow’s letter of reply on 1/13 January 1876, we read: “Why did you write that you want to make changes to your concerto? Naturally, I received them with great interest—but at this point I should tell you frankly that in my view no changes are necessary—except for some augmentations to the piano part in a few tutti, which I had already introduced myself, as I had done in Raff’s concerto. If I might be permitted to make another observation: the great effect of the finale is diminished if the triumphal 2nd motif, before the last Stretta, is to be played Molto meno mosso. This would have the effect of a more thrilling climax, and not so formal. Perhaps I am mistaken, but the public and some musicians favour my idea”.

The British pianist Edward Dannreuther played the concerto at the Crystal Palace in London (28 February/11 March 1876) and was bolder than von Bülow. He not only “made changes in the piano part to heighten its effectiveness, without interfering with the composer’s intentions”, but had the temerity to tell Tchaikovsky what he had done. However, the composer took this in good part, and replied in a letter (18/30 march 1876) :”I have received your kind letter, along with the programme for the concert where you gave me the honour of your magnificent execution of my difficult and tiring work. You would not believe, sir, how much happiness and joy the success of this piece causes me, and how I truly cannot find the expressions required to convey my gratitude. I also thank you for the very wise and practical advice you have given me, and be sure that I will follow it whenever the question of a second edition of my concerto arises”.

Jurgenson published the full score of the concerto in August 1879, described as a second edition “revised and corrected by the composer”. The second edition of the two-piano version was issued at the same time in conformity with this. The changes concern only the layout of the piano part in the first movement and may well embody Dannreuther’s suggestions, the originals of which are lost.

On 10/22 March 1878 the concerto was performed by Nikolay Rubinstein in Moscow at a special symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, and subsequently he performed it in Saint Petersburg and Paris. So he played the first version of the concerto, the one Tchaikovsky said ” I won’t alter a single note” and did so. It is clear that Rubinstein realized that he was mistaken about the value of the concerto and he became one of its fervent defenders.

On receiving the news by the cellist Karl Albrecht that Rubinstein had performed the concerto, Tchaikovsky was delighted : “Thank Nikolay Grigoryevich on my behalf for the concerto. He is rendering me a great service by performing it. This news was very, very pleasant for me to receive.” he replied in his letter to Albrecht (2/21 March 1878).

Another argument of the detractors of the concerto, is that it is badly shaped, with an introduction which seems to have no link with the rest of the piece. That it is a sort of tote bag, where Tchaikovsky has jumble all his melodic ideas. Here again it is wrong.

The introduction’s theme 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 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, for a long time, the introduction posed an enigma to analysts and critics alike. The key to the link between the introduction and what follows isTchaikovsky’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 different Ukrainian and Russian folk songs and also a French ditty in the middle section of the second movement. 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.

We have also to remember that Tchaikovsky is a master of the variation, equal to Beethoven and Brahms. It is a sort of natural function for him. Anton Rubinstein, the founder of the conservatory of Saint Petersburg, related when the young Tchaikovsky was his student : “One day I asked him to write for the next composition class, some contrapuntal variations on a theme, and I insisted that in this kind of work quality alone was not enough, but also quantity. I thought he would write a dozen variations. Not at all. At the next class he brought me two hundred!”

So it is clear that the First piano concerto is a finely written piece, carefully shaped and well deserving von Bülow’s  praise and not Rubinstein’s severe and rather impulsive criticism.

Concerning the third edition, during the period December, 1888 – February, 1889, Tchaikovsky prepared a new edition of the concerto, in consultation with Ziloti who had become one of its best exponents. In 1890 Daniel Rahter in Leipzig began to advertise the new edition of the concerto, described as a “new edition, revised by the composer”. At around the same time, Tchaikovsky’s principal publisher Jurgenson (who worked closely with Rahter) announced their own ‘édition revue et corrigée’. However, more than a century later, there still remain doubts as to which changes were authorised by Tchaikovsky before his death in 1893, and which might have been introduced posthumously. In fact, it seems that the third edition was not published during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime but only in 1894. At his last concert in Saint Petersburg, 28 October 1893, nine days before his death, where the 6th symphony was premiered, Tchaikovsky conducted also his first piano concerto, with Adele Aus der Ohe as soloist. His conducting score with handwritten performance markings was the 1879 version.   

There are 4 main changes with the third edition. One proposed by Tchaikovsky himself is the cut of 12 bars in the last movement. Obviously Tchaikovsky was not happy with what he called “the accursed place”, and he thought it would be shorter and better with his alteration. (Maybe this was also what he wanted to change after the first performances he attended in Russia, but was dissuaded by Bülow).

For the three others we are not sure if they were authorised (and even known) by the composer.

The change of tempo in the middle of the second movement from “Allegro vivace assai” to “Prestissimo” was disproved by Taneyev in a letter to Igumnov in 1912. For him Prestissimo was too fast. It is true that Tchaikovsky’s marking for the strings “molto cantabile e grazioso” (very lyrical and graceful) do not entrust to speed record. Fortunately some pianists and conductors have the good taste to play it more “Allegro vivace assai” than “Prestissimo”.

The change at bars 250 and 251 in the last movement (the repeated G-F octaves by octave jumps) is not striking.

The most noticeable is of course the change of the chords right at the beginning of the first movement. These chords, as Tchaikovsky originally wrote them, and as they were printed in the editions of 1875 and 1879, were confined to the middle part of the keyboard, and the second and third were arpeggiated each time; moreover they were marked only forte. In the third version they were drastically altered into the form in which we know them today : covering the whole compass of the keyboard from the bottom octave to the top; marked fortissimo (with the orchestra still mezzo-forte); and with the second and third chords no longer arpeggiated each time, but played with all the notes struck simultaneously. The result was to make the soloist’s entry far more titanic than Tchaikovsky had intended in the first place, and to tempt the soloist to drown the orchestral theme.  Siloti is supposed to be the author of the new writing of the chords. Has Tchaikovsky been informed of the change? and if yes did he approved it? no definitive answer has been made so far.

A number of the tempo modifications are translations of Tchaikovsky’s blue-pencil additions to the autograph: e.g. “plus lent” at bar 186 of the first movement , which now appears as “Poco meno mosso”.  However, not all Tchaikovsky’s pencillings were given the permanence of print; among these may be mentioned the repeated injunction not to hurry (“ne pressez pas le mouvement”) at bars 420 and 425 of the first movement.

The Russian editors of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Collected Works used Tchaikovsky’s autograph score as the basis for their edition, noting differences with the edition published in 1879 in an appendix or as ossia . None of the revisions made after 1879, except for the cut in the finale, were taken into account, on the grounds that “they cannot be proved to originate from Tchaikovsky himself”.

The pianist Kirill Gerstein who recorded the 1879 version based on Tchaikovsky’s own conducting score said : “Comparing the 1879 version with the posthumous one, I find the editorial changes in the third version add a superficial brilliance to the piece, while at the same time detracting from its genuine musical character. Many examples of differing dynamics, articulations, and tempo indications in Tchaikovsky’s version point to a more lyrical, almost Schumannesque conception of the concerto….. Tchaikovsky said that composing was a lyrical process for him, and the First Piano Concerto in his own version shows a strong lyrical and noble vein that the better-known posthumous version negates.”

In fact the differences between the second and third version are not so important when the performers play with musicianship and good taste and do not make this concerto a vehicle for tirelessly flashy virtuosity.  


1 Comment

Filed under Interviews, Works

One response to “Piano Concerto No 1

  1. It is said that the third version is the one that is most played. Do you know if there are any recordings of the first and second versions.

    I do know that there are two versions of Brahms Piano Trio opus 8 and on the Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor there are two endings. Do you know of any more variations in music?

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