The Real Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with its grand opening chords, is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces in the classical music repertoire. Van Cliburn’s recording of the concerto, made after his victory at the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war, became the first classical album to go triple platinum, and the first LP that many classical music lovers owned. For many, the concerto is the sound of classical music. Yet the piano’s famous opening chords are not, in fact, what Tchaikovsky wrote at all. The actual musical text of the composition, as Tchaikovsky notated and conducted it on numerous occasions, has been distorted by interventions almost certainly introduced after his death. This year—both the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth and the 140th anniversary of the concerto’s premiere—the Tchaikovsky Museum and Archive in Klin, Russia is publishing a new scholarly edition of the First Piano Concerto, a text that will enable us to hear for the first time the version of the composition that Tchaikovsky himself conducted.

 There are three versions of the concerto. Tchaikovsky himself was responsible for the two versions of the piece dating from 1875 and 1879. The third version was published posthumously after 1894. It is this third version that has been most commonly performed for over a century—for instance, this is the version that Van Cliburn performed—and it varies significantly from the two earlier versions. But the question of whether Tchaikovsky authorized the changes, or if they were the work of other musicians or editors, has until now gone largely unanswered.

At the end of 1874, Tchaikovsky showed a final draft of the first version of his piano concerto to his supporter, one of the foremost Russian musicians of the time, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. Not a concert pianist himself, the composer wanted to consult on the playability and effectiveness of the piano writing in the concerto. Rubinstein was scathing about both. Tchaikovsky describes this occasion in a letter to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, and recalls Rubinstein telling him that the concerto was unacceptable, full of clumsy, trivial passages, and many stolen ideas. At the end of the meeting, Tchaikovsky wrote, Rubinstein said
that if within a limited time I reworked the concerto according to his demands, then he would do me the honor of playing my piece at his concert. “I shall not alter a single note,” I answered, “I shall publish the work exactly as it is!” This I did.
Tchaikovsky completed this first version in February 1875 and dedicated the concerto to the great German pianist Hans von Bülow, an admirer of his music. Von Bülow responded to the concerto with great enthusiasm and premiered it in Boston in October 1875. A student of Tchaikovsky’s, the pianist and composer Sergey Taneev, gave the first performance in Moscow in December 1875 with the now less doubtful Rubinstein on the podium.

Shortly after these early performances Tchaikovsky decided to make some alterations to the piano part, making it more sonorous and playable while leaving both the musical material and the overall structure intact. With these changes incorporated, the second version of the concerto was printed by his publisher, P. Jurgenson, in 1879. From then on, it was this 1879 version that Tchaikovsky conducted, right up until his very last performance in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, days before his death.

It is impossible to know for certain just who is responsible for the posthumous version. The name of Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky’s, is most commonly mentioned in association with the changes in Tchaikovsky’s text. Siloti is quoted by Olin Downes in a New York Times article of October 13, 1929:
Some time after the first and second editions had appeared, Mr. Siloti informs us, he ventured to speak to Tchaikovsky about these matters. The young musician played the opening chords on the piano. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” “Why, yes,” replied the composer, astonished, “it’s what I’ve written, isn’t it?” “No. That’s just the point. It’s what I’ve played.” Siloti had transposed the chords of the right hand an octave higher than Tchaikovsky had written them—transposed them as they stand today. Siloti suggested other changes, and a short cut in the last movement.
There is documentary evidence that Siloti and Tchaikovsky discussed a proposed cut in the last movement, and that some further changes to the concerto were contemplated. However, the existing correspondence between them does not mention changing the opening chords, nor other alterations that actually ended up in the posthumous version.

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