Last updated August 31, 2018.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (composer)
First Performed: 10/15/1875
Van Cliburn’s Recording: 5/30/1958
Sales: 2.5 million (Van Cliburn)
Peak: 17 (US – Van Cliburn)
Tchaikovsky composed his first piano concerto between November 1874 and February 1875. He wanted pianist Nikolai Rubinstein to perform the piece and played it for him in an empty classroom on Christmas Eve 1874. Rubinstein was highly critical of the work, responding with a list of demanded changes before he would play it. Tchaikovsky was devastated by the criticism, but wrote to Rubinstein, “I shall not change a single note, and I shall publish the concerto as it is now.” WK
While he did make some changes, none were substantial and the concerto debuted in Boston on October 15, 1875 with Hans von Bülow performing. WK Tchaikovsky would later revise it in “in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888,” WK which is usually the version now played. Rubinstein later retracted his criticisms and championed the work. WK
Form-wise, the concerto is lopsided with “the broad melodies of the first movement run its length out to nearly 25 minutes, more than the length of the two remaining movements combined.” JS Tchaikovsky surprises the listener “by going straightway into a full-fledged cadenza for the piano solo, a powerful treatment of the theme.” JS
“The second movement is tender, beginning with pizzicato chords so quiet as to be almost whispers. A flute melody of young adolescent tenderness is the main theme of the movement. There is a central section with a delicate waltz.” JS
“The finale opens with a rushing string figure and a powerful drum stroke. The main theme is an arresting, galloping dance made up of many short phrases. Yet another romantic theme provides contrast.” JS
In 1958, pianist Van Cliburn’s recording of the concerto topped the Billboard album charts, selling an estimated 2.5 million copies. Both Van Cliburn and Arturo Toscanini’s recordings of the concerto have been named to the Grammy Hall of Fame and Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.