Monday 10 December 2018

The long road home for a piano masterpiece

Tchaikovsky's 'Piano Concerto No 1' was first heard in Boston
Tchaikovsky's 'Piano Concerto No 1' was first heard in Boston

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

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