March 2011

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

We talked about Tchaikovsky back in July 2009. He was a Russian composer in the late 1800s.

Around early 1875, Tchaikovsky wrote his first piano concerto. A concerto (pronounced "con-CHAIR-tow") means a piece of music featuring a solo instrument (an instrument playing by itself) being backed up by a group, usually an orchestra. In this case, the solo instrument is the piano.

This piece is written in B-flat minor, which would mean that it would have a sad or angry feel to it, but the most recognizable parts of it are actually in D-flat major. That happens alot in 19th century music. Lots of pieces have several key changes, and the key assigned the title is typically the one that starts the piece, not necessarily how it ends.

There's a funny story behind the invention of the most memorable melody of the piece. Evidently, Tchaikovsky heard this melody being played by blind beggar musicians at a market in Kamenka (a Russian village near Kiev). This theme would stand out as the most recognizable portion of the entire concerto.

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is not only a well-known piece of Tchaikovsky's, it's probably the most well-known piano concerto of any composer. One of the things that may have helped is a famous actor/director from the early 20th century: Orson Welles. Among many other things, Orson Welles was very active on the radio, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. He had a radio show called "Mercury Theatre", and the theme to the show was Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto. In fact, it became such an icon that the piano concerto played to introduce Orson Welles whenever he visited other shows.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

The first time I remember coming into contact with this piece was in sixth grade. Our class had been assigned to read through a radio play called "Invasion from Mars". For the benefit of future generations, I'll give you a little back history on this play.

In 1898, a British author named H. G. Wells wrote a novel called "War of the Worlds". It's a great story, and quite ahead of its time. It was a story about aliens from Mars invading earth. And, just when their victory seemed certain, the Martians died, due to becoming infected with bacteria, to which humans are naturally immune.

Forty years later, in 1938, Orson Welles adapted a version of "War of the Worlds" to a radio play. Instead of reading it as a novel, he was telling the story as if he were a reporter witnessing the events. This was done as a novelty, but it had evidently caused riots and panic in Chicago and some other major cities, as many of the radio listeners became convinced that they were actually being invated from Mars. Perhaps it didn't help that this was right at the beginning of World War II, and everyone was already on edge.

Anyway, "Invasion from Mars" was the adapted radio play that Orson Welles had put together. The reason I'm telling you all this is that our teacher played a production of this play to listen to. I don't know this, but now that I look back, it was most likely a recording of Orson Welles' Production. Toward the beginning of the play the announcer explains that they're going to take a break to listen to some orchestra. Tchaikovsky's piano concerto starts to play. I remember being struck by that melody. They only played the first little excerpt, but I remember wanting to find out what that was.

I don't remember how I found that out, but I did. Ever since, I've always made sure I've had a recording of it.


Now, the full concerto is around 45 minutes long. I decided to stick to my roots, and realize that we're dealing with limited attention spans. As luck would have it, I have a recording that highlights portions of the concerto and condenses it down to a little over 8 minutes. That will be your assignment today.

Excerpts from Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (8:12)

For those interested, this was the Utah Symphony performing. Unfortunately, I don't know the pianist, nor the conductor, but it was from a sampler album of their 2005-2006 season.

Jon's Interpretation:

For a piece that's supposed to be in a minor key, this is a powerfully happy theme. It features some very punctuated and loud piano parts (that are fun to play "air piano" to). There's just a strong feeling of joy.

The whole concerto takes you through the whole spectrum of emotions, but it does take its time doing so. Tchaikovsky has clearly already demonstrated his mastery of the orchestra. This was his first try at seeing what the piano could do. It was well done. I think you'll find yourself humming the main theme later. It's just that memorable.

Extra Credit:

Again, because I can, for those who may want to follow along, here's the score:

Conductor's Score for Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I mentioned that the assignment was just an excerpt. If you'd really like to hear the whole concerto (which I do recommend), here are all three movements. This is Vladimir Horowitz on the piano with his father-in-law, Arturo Toscanini, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra:

First Movement - Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso from Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (19:58)

Second Movement - Andantino simplice from Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (6:46)

Third Movement - Allegro con fuoco from Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (7:05)

This concerto also finds its way into cartoons. Here's the introduction to a Looney Tunes called "A Corny Concerto". Notice the pun about the famous Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Here's another more subtle example of its appearance in cartoons. This is another Looney Tunes called "Case of the Missing Hare". Listen to the tune Bugs Bunny is humming.