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Composed: 1874-1875
Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 21, 1919, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Rudolph Ganz

On Christmas Eve of 1874, Tchaikovsky took the completed score of his First Piano Concerto to the piano virtuoso Nicholas Rubinstein, hoping that the player would premiere the work and, through his advocacy, find a place for it in the repertoire. Rubinstein had played other works by Tchaikovsky and, until this point, had been one of the composer’s strongest supporters. No wonder that Tchaikovsky was stunned when the pianist gave the new Concerto a reception that made the Siberian tundra seem warm and welcoming. The composer described the incident in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, written in January 1878.

“I played the first movement. Never a word, never a single remark. Do you know the awkward and ridiculous sensation of putting before a friend a meal which you have cooked yourself, which he eats – and then holds his tongue? Oh, for a single word, for friendly abuse, for anything to break the silence! For God’s sake say something! But Rubinstein never opened his lips.”

The run-through continued, but the composer still got no reaction from the stone-faced Rubinstein. The master pianist held his tongue until Tchaikovsky had played through the entire Concerto, at which point Rubinstein could no longer contain his disgust.

“ ‘Well?’ I asked, and rose from the piano. Then a torrent broke from Rubinstein’s lips, gentle at first, gathering volume as it proceeded, and finally bursting into the fury of a Jupiter. My Concerto was worthless, absolutely unplayable; the passages so broken, so disconnected, so unskillfully written, that they could not even be improved; the work itself was bad, trivial, common; here and there I had stolen from other people; only one or two pages were worth anything; all the rest had better be destroyed. I left the room without a word. Presently Rubinstein came to me and, seeing how upset I was, repeated that my Concerto was impossible but said if I would suit it to his requirements he would bring it out at his concert. ‘I shall not alter a single note,’ I replied.”

Luckily, Tchaikovsky didn’t. He immediately banished the idea of dedicating the Concerto to Rubinstein, eventually settling on the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow for the honor. Bülow premiered the work in Boston on October 13, 1875, where it was a triumphant success, marking the beginning of a string of American performances that increased Tchaikovsky’s popularity here.

The opening Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso is certainly that – majestic and measured. After an introductory flourish dominated by the brass, a series of inevitable chords from the piano ride a passionate melody in the orchestra. Before this first theme has completely run out of steam, snatches of the second steal in, foreshadowing its imminent appearance in a uniquely structured double exposition. The stormy development builds to two shattering climaxes, first for the piano, punctuated by the orchestra, and then for the orchestra, with a searing figure for the strings taken up by the piano with thundering bravura. The movement closes with great assurance and authority, with dazzling passagework for the soloist giving melodic shape to a series of resolute chords played by the orchestra.

The central movement is unique in that a meltingly beautiful Andantino semplice – just what one would expect of a slow movement – gives way to a finger-twisting Prestissimo of the fleetest kind. The melody of this section comes from a French song, “Il faut s’amuser, danser, et rire,” that was a favorite of Tchaikovsky’s one-time fiancée, the soprano Désirée Artôt.

The finale, marked Allegro con fuoco – fast with fire – opens with a flamboyant Ukrainian tune which dissolves into a soaring second theme, played first by the violins, then by the soloist. Tchaikovsky pulls out all the stops for the Concerto’s coda, with the orchestra playing the second theme for all it’s worth before everyone launches into the dazzling closing pages.

— John Mangum