The letters of PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY to his brother Modest Tchaikovsky from 1874 contain some evidence to the composer’s intention to write a “concerto based on Ukrainian themes” and for the slow and difficult process of its creation.
The Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 1 was originally dedicated to Nikolay Rubinstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory, an a recognized authority of musical life in Russia, an esteemed pianist, who overtly admitted his resentment for the work. About this fact, about his friends’ criticisms of and about his adamant resolution not to alter anything in the Concerto, Tchaikovsky told three years later in one of his letters to Nadezhda von Meck. The composer erased Rubinstein’s name on the title page and replaced it initially with that of Sergey Taneeva student of his, but later, on second thoughts, replaced it again with the name of Hans von Bülow – a student of Ferenc Liszt. The latter gave the first performance of the Concerto in Boston on 25 October 1875 and became its staunch champion. The public and critical acclaim in the USA came as a surprise even to Tchaikovsky. It was only after this success, in the autumn of the same year, that the Concerto was also heard in St. Petersburg with a performance that the author found unsatisfying. César Cui and Herman Laroche wrote devastating critical reviews, which subsequently transformed into enthusiastic acclaim, following Rubinstein’s change in position. Thus on 21 November 1875 Rubinstein conducted the Moscow premiere of the Concerto with soloist the then young Sergey Taneev. And 1879 saw Rubinstein’s own performance of the piano part which created a sensation in Paris.
Judged against the work’s extreme present day popularity, the comments it received in its time can seem comical. The verdicts evolve from „an unpretentious piano concerto” to a way for us „one more time to see the stars”. Hans von Bülow was an exception as someone who from the very beginning acclaimed the concerto’s inherent ideas with the words “original”, “noble,” “powerful,” “interesting,” “exuberant,” and so forth.
The concerto is virtuosic, spectacular, emphatically pathetic, and full of romantic intoxication. The brilliant technique and the extremely beautiful and captivating thematic material define the music of its three movements. The work underwent three editions which were in themselves an act of underestimation of its inherently innovative ideas. The second version was made by the composer himself. The third was made after Tchaikovsky’s death and is attributed to Alexander Siloti, considered one of his best performers in the late nineteenth century. He excised some material from the third movement (something that Tchaikovsky in his lifetime refused to agree to) and replaced the original chords with arpeggios. The latter version is best known, but there are also performances and recordings of the composer’s original. This Concerto and his Sixth Symphony were played at Tchaikovsky’s valedictory concert, conducted by himself, at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York. From 1958 on, the First Concerto is included in the mandatory program of the Tchaikovsky International Competition.