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--Fyoder Dostoyevsky

"Today I have become familiar with the music of Brahms. What a giftless bastard!"
--Pyotor Illych Tchaikovsky

 
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All I want  for Christmas is to have my mentor and roommate completely trash my piano concerto.....

At this most festive time of year, it behooves us at Pianonoise to continue our series about how legendary composers spent their Christmases. Today we look at the yuletide of one Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, who...

What? You aren't dying to know this?

Actually, the story is fairly well known, at least if you attend symphony concerts and read the program notes. For the other 99 hundredths of you, perhaps you will be touched, maybe inspired in some way by the events which are about to unfold in the telling. But believe me, dewey-eyed romantics, the snow falling outside the window at the Moscow conservatory is about the only thing about this story that is not ugly. So for those who do not want their Christmas cheer interrupted by a harsh dose of (albeit someone else's) reality, or for children under 10, we recommend skipping this page and watching some nice dancing hamsters for a few minutes instead. We'll wait.

For those of you intrepid souls who wish to continue, here are the sordid facts:

Tchaikovsky had just written his first piano concerto. This roughly 40 minute work for piano solo and orchestra had taken him about a month to write. Being the quintessential Romantic artist, the whole episode probably cost him a great deal of spiritual travail.

Tchaikovsky had attained the very ripe age of 34 by the time of our story. That makes him old, at least according to one of my sources. While I was doing some fact checking on the internet (blimey!) I came across a site that suggested our poor composer was not having the sort of successes he had had when young, that perhaps he was losing his verve and gusto. Given that I too am in my 30s, I completely understand. My minute waltz gains a second or two every year.

Regardless of where he was in his career, he had done something new. And, not being a pianist, he needed (or thought he needed) a pianist's opinion of his work. So upon completion, he took it to the esteemed Nicolai Rubinstein, pianist legendaire, brother of Anton, the founder and head of the new Moscow conservatory, who had persuaded Tchaikovsky to exchange one snow filled city for another by leaving St. Petersburg and setting forth on a new adventure by becoming a professor of composition at this same institution.

It made sense for the two to meet in a room at the conservatory. Why they chose Christmas Eve is anyone's guess.

Picture it. The snow falling fast and furiously outside (and probably inside as well, in some spots), the merciless cold of the Russian winter numbing the fingers of the two men as they huddled over their respective pianos, and performed, for the first time, what was to become one of the most celebrated piano concertos to come out of the 19th century. Well, apparently, the composer played (at one piano) and Rubinstein listened. Maybe he left the orchestral parts to the imagination (they had apparently not been finished anyway) or filled in some on the same instrument. The documentary evidence says nothing about them performing a 2-piano version wherein a 2nd pianist plays the orchestra's parts. I bring this up because I always assumed that is what they did, since it is such an imbedded custom at music conservatories these days. Evidently Rubinstein didn't sight-read a note. What a baby.

The composer played through his first (15 minute) movement. He waited to hear what Rubinstein had to say. Nothing. Apparently he wanted to experience it whole before he gave it a good sendoff. Or give it another chance by hearing the 2nd and 3rd movements. We'll never know, except that it made the composer quite annoyed. We do know what happened next, at least through Tchaikovsky's eyes, because he wrote about the incident to his brother Modeste. In an oft quoted letter we get the tenor of Rubinstein's reaction. One final warning: he doesn't mince words or damn with faint praise:

"'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."

This did not go over well with Tchaikovsky, as you can imagine. Once Rubinstein's friend had cooled down a bit, Nicolai tried to explain a bit more constructively how the composer might change things to improve the concerto, but Tchaikovsky was not interested. He would not change a single note. He did change one small item however. The concerto would no longer be dedicated to Nicolai Rubinstein!

This must have seemed like a real ambush to Peter Illyich. Nicolai Rubinstein had, up to this point, been a real supporter of Tchaikovsky's music, on stage and in print. When his younger brother founded the Moscow conservatory, Nicolai roomed with the new professor, who had once been his student in St. Petersburg, and championed his music as warmly as he could.

Oh, yes. The part about being roommates. History doesn't record this part (that I know of) but you can just imagine the arguments over whose turn it was to go grocery shopping after that.

What could have caused Rubinstein's reaction? Was it jealousy? Was it some sort of domestic annoyance that flared into a professional spat? Had he eaten some bad fish that morning? Was he honestly revolted by the piece, disgusted with its innovations, or uncomprehending of its style? Or did Tchaikovsky play it badly? He does not appear to have been that much of a pianist, and a bad performance can make a huge difference in a first impression.

We'll never know.

History does record that the new dedicatee was one Han von Bulow. Bulow was a celebrated pianist who just happened to be making a tour of America at the time and took the concerto with him to Boston. As a result, Tchaikovsky got his music performed in America for the first time, and the audiences loved it. They've been loving it ever since. Practically every major symphony orchestra in the country plays it every couple of years. Tonight, as I hurried home to finish this article, it was on the radio.

There are some lessons we could draw from this story. 1) people are not always nice, even at Christmas, 2) it doesn't matter how good you are at something, someone will tell you you suck, 3) even the professionals don't always know what they are talking about. If one of these three items helps you through a rough spot, help yourself. They are in the public domain.

Incidentally, Rubinstein later changed his mind and went on to play the concerto, and to think well of it. So this story has a happy ending after all.

 

Gag me.

michael@pianonoise.com