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Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1

The opening of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is one of the most famous in all classical music, with its opening horn fanfare punctuated by orchestral chords, before the piano enters with its notoriously-tricky octave chords that encompass the whole range of the instrument (listen ). But the question now being asked by the editors of a new critical edition of the concerto is: "Did Tchaikovsky ever hear it played that way?". Tchaikovsky Research readers may be able to help provide the answer...

"First Version"

Tchaikovsky began work on the concerto in October 1874, and within two months it was fully composed and written out in an arrangement for two pianos. On Christmas Eve 1874 [O.S.], Tchaikovsky played the work through to his friend Nikolay Rubinstein, who gave a devastating verdict and demanded sweeping changes. Tchaikovsky's full account of this occasion can be found in our work history for the concerto, but he came away resolving that "I will not change a single note". Next he worked on the orchestration, which was completed in February 1875, and the concerto had its premiere on 13 October 1875 — not in Russia, but rather in Boston, Massachusetts, by the German virtuoso Hans von Bülow, who sent back glowing reports of the concert from American newspapers. Perhaps reassured by this positive reaction, the concerto was first heard in Russia  the following month, with Gustav Kross and Sergey Taneyev performing in Saint Petersburg and Moscow respectively. (Incidentally, the conductor on the latter occasion was none other than Nikolay Rubinstein, who appears to have quickly recanted his earlier critique.)

We know from various archival sources—the composer's autograph full score and arrangement for two pianos, and a copyist's score prepared for Hans von Bülow—that the opening of the concerto was rather different from its familiar form. The opening was at a slower tempo (marked: "Andante non troppo e molto maestoso", rather than "Allegro non troppo..."), but more significantly the piano chords accompanying the main theme were played more softly and arpeggio, with a much smaller range (listen ). There are many more differences in the piano part, almost entirely in the first movement, and these were all enshrined in the published arrangement for two pianos issued by Tchaikovsky's publisher Pyotr Jurgenson in 1875. Although Jurgenson also brought out the orchestral parts at this time, he did not, as yet, publish the complete full score.

"Second Version"

After Taneyev's performance of the concerto in Moscow, Tchaikovsky began to consider making alterations to the piano part, some of which were suggested by the British pianist Edward Dannreuther, who premiered the work in London on 11 March 1876. These appeared when Jurgenson finally brought out the full score in August 1879 (plate 2590), and while the opening chords had been tweaked somewhat, they continued to be heard arpeggio. Some tempo indications had also been altered, but there were only minor changes to the orchestral parts. These revisions were all marked by the composer in a printed edition of the two-piano arrangement, belonging to his friend Karl Klindworth, and there is little argument as to their authenticity. 

"Third Version"

Between 1888 and 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted his B-flat minor concerto on no fewer than ten occasions at concerts in Russia, western Europe and the United States. His conducting notes for some of these performances have survived, and these are largely in accordance with the version published in 1879, except for a cut of sixteen bars in the finale that had proved extremely awkward for both soloist and orchestra, which Tchaikovsky referred to as 'der ferfluchte Stelle' (‘the accursed place’) (listen ). This cut eventually found its way into the familiar version of the concerto (listen ).

During the late 1880s Tchaikovsky began corresponding with the Leipzig-based publishing firm of Daniel Rahter, concerning a new edition of the concerto, and we know that he consulted with others (including Aleksandr Ziloti) about possible changes. In 1890 Rahter began to advertise a new edition of the concerto, described as "Neue, vom Componisten revidirte Ausgabe" ('new edition, revised by the composer'). At around the same time, Tchaikovsky's principal publisher Jurgenson (who worked closely with Rahter) announced their own 'édition revue et corrigée'.

However, more than a century later, there still remain doubts as to which changes were authorised by Tchaikovsky before his death in 1893. The problem is that these new editions by Jurgenson and Rahter are all undated, and Jurgenson's scores continued to use the original plates and edition numbers (2590 for the full score, 2591 for the parts, 2592 for the two-piano arrangement). At the time it was a common publishing practice to bring out new impressions of older editions with fresh covers, so an edition prepared in 1880 might have a cover from 1900. There are examples of some of Jurgenson's engravings of the concerto being rebranded with new covers by Rahter, and advertised as the latter's own.

We only know that by the end of 1897, within four years of Tchaikovsky's death, the modern "third version" of the concerto had become established, including with the redistributed bravura opening chords (no longer played arpeggio), and the cut in the finale, and other changes in tempo and dynamic markings. Sergey Taneyev, amongst others, considered these changes to be inauthentic, writing in 1912 that: "I believe that a return to the original text is essential, and we should forget about pernickety editorial interventions and perform it just as the author intended". In 1955 the editors of the Soviet critical edition of Tchaikovsky's music also considered the modern version to be inauthentic, and stuck firmly to Tchaikovsky's 1875 score, with changes from the 1879 edition shown as alternative readings ('ossia'). A number of Tchaikovsky's associates have been suspected of rewriting the concerto after his death, with the finger of suspicion pointing at the pianist Aleksandr Ziloti, who brought out his own heavily edited version of Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto in the late 1890s. On the other hand newly-discovered correspondence from the 1880s suggests that Tchaikovsky himself might have been solely responsible, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Can You Help?

Now a fresh critical edition of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 is being prepared for the New Edition of the Complete Works (NČE), and Dr Polina Vaidman, senior archivist at the Tchaikovsky House-Museum at Klin, near Moscow, is attempting to establish once and for all which version of the score can be considered authentic. The editorial team is seeking to track down all known editions of the concerto that were produced by P. Jurgenson in Moscow, or by D. Rahter in Leipzig, and especially those with dating evidence (such as library accession stamps or handwritten dates).

If you have access to any of these Jurgenson or Rahter editions (full scores or piano arrangements), you can help by providing scans of just four important pages:

  • the front cover
  • the first page of music
  • the last page of music
  • the back cover (including any advertisements)

We would of course ask you to be careful not to damage the editions when scanning, and not to do so without the owner's permission. Scans should be sent in PDF, TIF, GIF or JPG, format to us here at and we will pass them to the editorial team, who will be most grateful for any assistance received.

Due to publication deadlines this information is urgently required before the end of July 2013.

With your help we may be finally able to lay the debate to rest!

Brett Langston
June 2013

This page was last updated on 27 June 2013