The long road home for a pi­ano mas­ter­piece

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - CULTURE VIEW - with Ge­orge Hamilton

As a 10-year-old boy, Py­otr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was taken to a per­for­mance of Mikhail Glinka’s mu­si­cal drama A Life for the Tsar. He was im­me­di­ately smit­ten. When he dis­cov­ered the com­poser’s later work, Rus­lan and Lyud­mila, he was so im­pressed he de­scribed it as the tsar of all op­eras. He’d write one him­self, and two sym­phonies as well, be­fore com­pos­ing the piece that bought him to the at­ten­tion of the pub­lic at large. This was his first ‘Pi­ano Con­certo’.

It’s one of the most fa­mous of them all, in­stantly recog­nis­able by the horns that blast out the open­ing bars, pav­ing the way for the crash­ing chords that an­nounce the ar­rival of the pi­ano.

That very in­tro­duc­tion — un­con­ven­tional in that it uses mo­tifs that are never heard again — was part of the rea­son Tchaikovsky’s mu­sic was first heard, not in one of Moscow’s great venues, but thou­sands of miles away in a mu­sic hall down a side street in Bos­ton.

Tchaikovsky had stud­ied law and worked as a civil ser­vant at the Min­istry of Jus­tice in St Peters­burg. When he failed to get a pro­mo­tion, he re­signed, and en­rolled in the mu­sic school.

There, he came un­der the in­flu­ence of An­ton Ru­bin­stein, one of two star pi­anist broth­ers. When Tchaikovsky grad­u­ated, he got a post at the new Moscow Con­ser­va­tory where Ru­bin­stein’s brother Niko­lai had been in­stalled as the first di­rec­tor. Now Pro­fes­sor of Har­mony, Tchaikovsky pub­lished two books on the sub­ject. His com­pos­ing ca­reer also blos­somed.

When he fin­ished his con­certo, Niko­lai Ru­bin­stein was the ob­vi­ous choice to per­form the pre­miere. But Ru­bin­stein’s verdict on the work was harsh. He’d no idea where Tchaikovsky was go­ing with this mu­sic. He reck­oned it was un­playable and told the com­poser so in no un­cer­tain terms. He would only per­form it if sub­stan­tial changes were made.

Tchaikovsky took the hump. He wouldn’t change a note. He’d find some­body else to play it for him.

That some­body was Hans von Bülow, a big noise at the time both as a con­duc­tor and as a pi­anist, prin­ci­pally re­mem­bered now for the fact that his wife, Cosima — Franz Liszt’s daugh­ter — left him for the com­poser Richard Wag­ner.

Von Bülow was en­thu­si­as­tic. The only is­sue was, he had a tour in the United States com­ing up. But he’d take the mu­sic with him, and in­clude it in his pro­gramme.

So, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pi­ano Con­certo No 1’ was first heard in what’s now the Or­pheum Theatre at 1 Hamilton Place, Bos­ton, in Oc­to­ber 1875. The en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse was re­peated when the con­certo was per­formed again a week later.

Von Bülow also played it at two con­certs in New York, where it was also well re­ceived. Word of the work’s suc­cess trav­elled far, and led to a change of mood back in Moscow.

Just one month later, Tchaikovsky’s con­certo was on the bill, and none other than Niko­lai Ru­bin­stein was on the ros­trum, con­duct­ing the orches­tra. He’d go on to per­form it him­self soon af­ter.

On hear­ing that Ru­bin­stein had changed his mind and was now a cham­pion of the mu­sic, Tchaikovsky wrote to a friend: “Thank Niko­lay Grig­o­rye­vich (Ru­bin­stein) on my be­half for the con­certo. He is ren­der­ing me a great ser­vice by per­form­ing it. I was very, very pleased to hear this news.”

Dur­ing the World Cup, Ge­orge Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores from Rus­sia on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Sat­ur­day and Sun­day

Pre­miere: Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pi­ano Con­certo No 1’ was first heard in Bos­ton

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