Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 73

In December 1874 Tchaikovsky completed his first piano concerto, having worked on it for a month and dedicated it to Nikolai Rubinstein, the finest pianist in Moscow. As Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, he wanted to make sure that nothing in the solo part would be technically ineffective or ungrateful or impractical. Naturally, although as he recalled later, with some misgivings, he asked Rubinstein to listen to it and give a soloist’s opinion.

On Christmas Eve, the two met in a classroom at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky played through the first movement and Rubinstein didn’t utter a word. Deeply troubled at the silence, Tchaikovsky played the rest of the concerto. Again, Rubinstein said nothing until Tchaikovsky asked for a comment. He didn’t want an artistic verdict, only a pianist’s technical advice, but took the silence as indicating that Rubinstein disliked the concerto entirely.

When Rubinstein began to speak, his words confirmed the composer’s worst fears. The composition was trivial, with all the material stolen from here and there. The passagework was commonplace, unskillfully written, and unplayable. There might be two or three pages worth keeping, but it would be better to scrap the whole thing and start over.

Tchaikovsky felt treated like an untalented scribbler being raked over the coals for pestering a great man with rubbish. Deeply offended, he stormed out of the room without a word. Rubinstein followed  him and tried to make things better. He said that if Tchaikovsky rewrote it as he suggested, he would be happy to play it at one of his concerts. Still enraged, Tchaikovsky vowed to publish it without changing a single note.

He did make one change. He dedicated it to the German conductor and piano virtuoso Hans von Bülow. The two had never met, but Tchaikovsky had heard that Bülow greatly admired his work. Bülow, delighted with the new concerto and unexpected dedication, profusely thanked Tchaikovsky in a long letter and set off on a tour of North America. He premiered the concerto in Boston on October 25, 1875.

And Rubinstein? When he heard one of his students perform it, he changed his opinion and became its vigorous champion.

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