The Magnificent Mess That Is Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto 1

The first movement of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto is a magnificent mess of a piece. On a certain level, it can’t decide what it wants to be or what it wants to do. Is it a sonata form or a bunch of songs strung together? I accuse Tchaikovsky of mixing metaphors. Is the opening grand theme an introductory song or a proper first theme for a sonata? Is the fast scurrying folk theme that follows the real beginning of the piece—a “first theme”—or itself a transition, or bridge passage, to a lyrical second theme? It’s not easy to tell. Is the lush lyrical theme that follows a “second theme” or a transition to the gentle lullaby theme that comes next and seems to conclude the exposition? It’s not easy to determine answers to those questions. For one thing, the key changes are a little screwy.

Tchaikovsky wrote a detailed letter about the devastating reception of his first piano concerto when he played the newly completely work for Nikolai Rubinstein:

“On Christmas Eve 1874 ... Nikolai asked me ... to play the Concerto in a classroom of the Conservatory. We agreed to it.... I played through the first movement. Not a criticism, not a word. Rubinstein said nothing.... I did not need any judgment on the artistic form of my work; there was question only about its mechanical details. This silence of Rubinstein said much. It said to me at once: ‘Dear friend, how can I talk about details when I dislike your composition as a whole?’ But I kept my temper and played the Concerto through. Again, silence.

 “‘Well?’ I said, and stood up. There burst forth from Rubinstein’s mouth a mighty torrent of words. He spoke quietly at first; then he waxed hot, and at last he resembled Zeus hurling thunderbolts. It appeared that my Concerto was utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable; passages were so commonplace and awkward that they could not be improved; the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from that one and that from this one; so only two or three pages were good for anything, while the others should be wiped out or radically rewritten. I cannot produce for you the main thing: the tone in which he said all this. An impartial bystander would necessarily have believed that I was a stupid, ignorant, conceited note-scratcher, who was so impudent as to show his scribble to a celebrated man.”

Today we enthusiastically take Tchaikovsky’s side. This piece stands both as one of the great concerti for the piano and one of the best-loved melodic works in the classical repertoire.  But putting that aside, it is not impossible to sympathize with Nicholas Rubinstein’s frustration.

There is the issue of the bridges. Tchaikovsky criticized himself as composing heavy and clumsy bridges, but in this movement they also seem to lead nowhere. They conclude with music sputtering out after each idea, pausing, and then beginning again, raising a question of whether all the material either fits or belongs together.

Then there is the problem of the melody that begins the concerto. It is one of the most famous melodies every written, but astonishingly, it never returns after the opening of the piece! Listeners leave the piece humming that melody in their heads and essentially forget the many minutes of music that follows it. Certainly that’s a testament to Tchaikovsky’s melodic genius, but what’s the point then of all the other wonderful music?

What exactly is the structure of this first movement?  Is the opening grand theme an introductory song or a proper first theme? Is the fast scurrying folk theme that follows the real beginning of the piece a “first theme” or is it itself a transition, or bridge passage, to a lyrical second theme? It’s not easy to tell. Is the lush lyrical theme that follows the folk theme a “second theme” or a transition to the gentle lullaby theme that comes next and seems to conclude the exposition? It’s difficult to determine answers to those questions.

For one thing, the key changes are screwy. The harmonic plan of sonata form is very clear: music begins in a home key, modulates to a different key, then returns to the original key.  But Tchaikovsky makes the home key an ambiguous topic in the first movement. Viewed one way, he begins with the different key and then modulates to the home key—backwards! Then when the home key modulates, it doesn’t go back to the different key, but instead goes to yet another key—the key the music would have gone to if the key the piece began with what was in fact the home key. If this analysis confuses you, rest assured it is no less confusing than Tchaikovsky’s structure. Viewed another way, he begins with the home key, proceeds normally to the exposition, but then ends the movement in the wrong key! Essentially, he wants to have it both ways: he wants the opening melody to be regarded as an introduction but also as a “fake” home key.  This requires illustration:

Exposition Scenario 1—Opening melody is an introduction:

OPENING MELODY—"Grand Theme"—D flat Major—III (Mediant)
FIRST THEME—Russian folk-like tune—Bb minor i (Tonic)
SECOND THEME—Lyric melody—A flat Major (Dominant of Grand Theme—V/III)
CLOSING—Lullaby—A flat Major (Dominant of Grand Theme—V/III)

Exposition Scenario 2—Opening melody is the actual beginning “First Theme”:

FIRST THEME—"Grand Theme"—D flat Major—I (Tonic)
TRANSITION—Russian folk-like tune—Bb minor vi (submediant)
SECOND THEME—Lyric melody—A flat Major (Dominant of Grand Theme—V)
CLOSING—Lullaby—A flat Major (Dominant of Grand Theme—V)

Despite all these complaints and confusion, Tchaikovsky’s concerto in fact wrestles with the very idea of combining piano and orchestra in a novel and genius fashion. To get into Tchaikovsky’s game, we need to remind ourselves about the nature of concerti. Even the opening of Tchaikovsky’s piece is structurally innovative when we consider that it compresses the entire drama of concerto form into what is essentially a song. What is the typical format of a concerto after all? The orchestra begins, the soloist enters, both forces build to an exciting cadenza, and then the orchestra finishes with bravura. Tchaikovsky accomplishes all of this in his introduction: the piano accompanies a grand theme played by the orchestra, then the piano plays the theme itself and breaks into a cadenza, and finally the orchestra concludes the drama again stating the theme. Essentially, Tchaikovsky has accomplished everything the first movement of a concerto is supposed to do in about 3 minutes. Perhaps that’s why the audience turns off its ears at this point. But what’s left is where Tchaikovsky’s real work begins. Because Tchaikovsky’s game is that every subsequent idea of this piano concerto will derive from this grand theme, even though we’ll never hear it again!

After the grand theme concludes, a coda brings the music to a quiet conclusion, quite the opposite of what to expect. Usually an introduction concludes by accelerating the music forward. Tchaikovsky instead quietly closes the curtain and then directs our attention to a different stage. And that’s one of the problems with this piece. The music stops before each new section, as if Tchaikovsky is merely stitching a whole bunch of smaller pieces together into something larger.

The music starts again with piano scurrying along a passage that is a bit like quiet hiccups—a reaction to the over-the-top cadenza that preceded?—and then the orchestra provides a rustic bass to what seems to be a Russian folk song and is either the proper “first theme” of the piece or itself a transition to the lyrical second theme.  As with all subsequent melodic material, this theme derives its shape and substance from different parts of the “grand” theme that began the concerto.

The rustic folk theme quiets down with brief interruptions of what will be the pleading lyrical second theme. Curiously, or maddeningly, the key of this new theme relates to the grand introductory theme, not the theme of the preceding Russian folk theme. This new lyrical theme is moves from orchestra to the piano, which embarks on a fantasy and dramatic cadenza, eventually sputtering out and concluding quietly in yet another new key (C minor, unrelated to all the others so far!). The music stops again. And then a gentle lullaby-like closing melody emerges and concludes the exposition, again in the key related to the grand introductory theme, not the Russian folk theme.

The development is more straightforward. It is in two parts—orchestral and solo piano. The orchestra transforms the gentle lullaby into a dramatic and forceful episodic music. The piano displays many different moods in its section, some of which have a salon flavor. We can hear both touches of Schumann and Liszt..

The recapitulation sets Tchaikovsky’s structural ship to rights. In other words, it “behaves” harmonically the way we expect. The scampering Russian folk theme returns in its Bb minor key and both subsequent lyric tunes appear in B flat major. So we become absolutely sure now that Bb is the home key of this concerto and not Db major, which we heard in the first 3 minutes of the piece. Also conventional, a full piano cadenza appears between the two lyric tunes (the Second Theme and the Closing Sections of the piece).  For this reason, the recapitulation is absolutely critical in making sense of the first movement. Maybe when hearing the music from this vantage point, it’s the opening grand melody we start to forget instead of the res of the piece after it!