Pyotr Tchaikovsky composed his “Piano Concerto No. 1” during the winter, somewhere between November (1874) and February (1875). The composition was revised twice in 1879 and 1888, respectively. His first version was heavily criticized by fellow Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. However, he later abandoned his stance and personally endorsed the composition. “Piano Concerto No. 1” remains one of the most popular compositions of Tchaikovsky.
The composition is scored for an orchestra and piano. The instrumentation includes flutes (2), oboes (2), clarinets in B-flat (2), horns in F (4), bassoons (2), trombones (3, including bass and 2 tenors), strings, timpani, cellos, and violins.
The reference of the first version of “Piano Concerto No. 1” can be found in a letter directed towards Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. Pyotr had just finished his visit to Kyiv and mentioned how “tirelessly” he is working on the concerto. This incident is succeeded by Nikolay Rubinstein’s famous criticism. However, Tchaikovsky remained unperturbed. He blatantly refused to alter the concerto and orchestrated it in January 1875. He also sent it to Hans von Bülow, who enthusiastically applauded the dedication displayed in the composition.
Tchaikovsky decided to make certain modifications after the first staged performance took place in Moscow. He again consulted von Bülow. However, the German conductor didn’t share the views of the composer. In 1879, the full score was published, including the changes Tchaikovsky had made. For some time, there remained marked differences between the published arrangement and the printed score for two pianos.
The late 1880s saw Tchaikovsky collaborating with a German publishing firm to work on the third version of the concerto. The composer wanted to make it more compact and better, making alterations to the “rhythmic motif.” This new edition was advertised as “Neue, vom Componisten revidirte Ausgabe,” German for “new edition revised by the composer.” However, in the 1890s, Jorgensen, Tchaikovsky’s principal publisher, announced another version titled, “édition revue et corrigée.” Speculations remain whether Tchaikovsky authorized this changed version, or whether the alterations were made posthumously.
The composition can be conventionally performed within approximately 35 minutes, with the first movement spanning for the longest time. The Piano Concerto follows the traditional structure, with three movements:
“Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso” (D-flat major) — ”Allegro con spirito”
It starts off with four energetic “B minor” chords, leading to a passionate and lyrical theme in “D major.” This subsidiary theme is performed thrice, where the last version follows a piano cadenza before disappearing. The ending of the introduction is subdued. Next, the “exposition proper” starts in the “tonic minor” key, which was inspired by Ukrainian folk music. It is followed by a brief transposition process, which is essentially an alternating (high and low register) “call & response” between the piano and tutti.
The second subject group of the composition alternates between two distinct themes, where the effortless second theme answers the first. The first theme reappears again, rejuvenated by “piano arpeggios.” The entire subject gradually fabricates a turbulent climax in “C minor.” A short pause follows, subsequently closing the section with a consoling theme in “A major.”
Next, the “development section” slowly transforms into an ominous sequence, incorporated with punctuations of the first subject. A rush of piano octaves follows the section, as fragments of the melancholy theme are revisited in “E major.” This theme is then repeated in “G minor,” and again in “E major” through strings and piano.
Finally, the “recapitulation section” offers a truncated version of the first subject, transitioning through “C minor.” In its second subject group, the first theme replaces the consoling second theme, with another appearance of the ominous sequence, albeit in “B major.” However, the excitement soon concedes with a deceptive tempo. A short closing section in “G major” follows, played through the piano and orchestra. A piano cadenza appears, which contains excerpts from the composition’s minor key. The “coda” restores the “B major,” as the second theme of the second subject group is played again. It builds up a gradual tension, subsequently finishing with a triumphant “plagal cadence.”
“Andantino semplice” (D-flat major)
The second movement is performed in “D major.” It comprises “andantino semplice” tempo marking, leading to the possibility of a wide range of interpretations. The introduction offers a brief pizzicato, followed by the flute that stamps its authority on the theme’s first statement. The opening four notes of the flute are relatively low-key, where the “F” is gradually substituted by a higher “B.” The piano follows the flute, modulating to “F major.” There is a brief bridge section, which is followed by the re-emergence of the two cellos in “D major.” The “A” section concludes with a higher “F major.” The “B” section is performed in “D minor” and is marked as “prestissimo” or “allegro vivace assai.” The “B” section of the movement is started off with a virtuosic piano, which subsequently accompanies the strings as a new “D major” is introduced. The end of the “B” section is marked by the return of “A,” The piano creates another ornamented statement as it sets up a brief “coda,” which finishes with a “plagal cadence.”
“Allegro con fuoco” (B-flat minor & B-flat major)
The final movement starts in the “Rondo” form, albeit with a very short introduction. The “A” theme is upbeat, utilizing a “B minor” chord played via the piano. The “B” theme, played with violins and piano, is in “D major” and offers a more lyrical and melodious approach. The theme continues on descending scales before the “A” theme re-appears in an Abridged version. The “C” theme follows, offering a modulated and dotted rhythm, combined with a piano solo. The later sections of the movement mark the return of both “A” and “B” theme, but in “E major.” The descending scales are repeated again, leading to the “A” theme. However, this time it ends with an imperfect cadence. The coda starts next, adding to the dramatic climax with an intense build-up. It oozes a lucid yet mysterious aura that explodes into a triumphant “B major.” The final section of the coda, “allegro vivo,” portrays a valiant conclusion - a perfect cadence.
“Piano Concerto No. 1” was first performed on October 1875 by Hans von Bülow, in Boston. The audience reaction was overwhelming, which led to a repeat performance later in the month. The American tour was ended with another performance in New York. This particular composition was close to Tchaikovsky ‘s heart, as multiple concerts were held across America and Europe. Other notable performances were:
- In 1878, Hans von Bülow played the piece on the piano in a concert in Wiesbaden.
- In 1878, Nikolay Rubinstein played the piece on the piano at the Trocadero Hall in Paris. It was conducted by Édouard Colonne.
- In 1884, the first performance using the second version of the composition was staged, with Natalya Kalinovskaya-Chikhacheva playing the piano and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov conducting the event.
- In 1888, Rafael Joseffy played the piece on the piano at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
- In 1888, two separate Philharmonic Society concerts were held in Hamburg and Berlin, where Vasily Sapelnikov and Aleksandr Ziloti played the piano. Both of these concerts were conducted by Tchaikovsky.
- In 1891, three concerts were held at the Music Hall in New York, Lyceum Theatre in Baltimore, and the Academy of Music Philadelphia. Adele aus der Ohe played the piano in each program, which was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself.
- In 1970, the composition was used in the movie “The Music Lovers.”
- In 1990, the piece again found a place in the movie “Misery.”
- The most recent usage of the concerto was in the 2016 movie “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.”
2019 is the 179th birth anniversary of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It’s also the 144th year since the premiere of his golden apple, the crème de la crème of his works - “Piano Concerto No 1.” The orchestration and dynamics are truly world-class; this is a composition of such commitment, strength, and refinement that leaves the audience mesmerized. With each performance, the work feels like unveiling off new, limpid angles that offer a glimpse of his incredible technical abilities. A scorching, heart-rendering concerto that is well and truly the stuff of legends.