“Oh, how difficult it is to make anyone see and feel in music what we see and feel ourselves.”
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
I mentioned in my Sunday Salon a week or so ago that I had recently written program notes for upcoming Reno Philharmonic concerts that include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (performances are this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, should you be in the Reno area). This caused me to reflect how remarkable it is that artists like Tchaikovsky carry on working, given the quality of the reviews and feedback they have sometimes received.
In the case of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky had wanted the piece to be given its first performance by his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who had hired Tchaikovsky right out of college as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and who conducted several premieres of his works. But when Tchaikovsky played through the Concerto for Rubinstein, what was the reaction? According to Tchaikovsky, “It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.” Fortunately, Tchaikovsky found a more receptive collaborator in pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow (von Bülow was just about to take off for an American tour, which explains why the Concerto was given its first performance in Boston, of all places).
Another much-loved work, Romeo and Juliet, was said to feature music that “sounds rather like scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife.” Francesca da Rimini, the orchestral tone poem, “is a musical monster” with “ear-flaying horror.” And the conclusion of the Symphony No. 5 “sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.” In general, wrote one Vienna critic, Tchaikovsky’s music “scorns logic, wallows in torpor, and time and again, collapses in dissonant convulsions.”
Perhaps the most famous, and withering, scorn was heaped on the now-beloved Violin Concerto. After completing it in a frenzied couple of weeks in March and April of 1878, Tchaikovsky’s plan was to dedicate the Concerto to Leopold Auer, the famous Hungarian violinist and teacher who was also concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. However, Auer didn’t like the Concerto and refused to play it for many years, although he eventually gave in to its charms (as did Rubinstein, in fact, with the First Piano Concerto). Violinist Adolph Brodsky eventually received the dedication, and it was he that was featured in the work’s first performance in 1881. By all accounts, the performance didn’t go so well. It led to one of the most famously abusive reviews in music history, from the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick described Tchaikovsky as “surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, and lacking all discrimination and taste.” Of the Concerto’s solo part, Hanslick wrote that “the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue.” His grand conclusion: “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.”
According to a survey by Bachtrack, Tchaikovsky came in at #7 in their list of most-often-performed composers of 2018. With 214 recordings listed for his Piano Concerto No. 1 at ArkivMusic.com, as well as 180 each for the Violin Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that Tchaikovsky has had the last laugh, although the laughter may have been through a few tears.