The first International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 was an event designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of that country’s technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957.
It was pretty much fore ordained that a Russian would win.
However Van Cliburn’s performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on April 13 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes.
When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!”
Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time magazine proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”
Tonight we will will listen to a performance by Van Cliburn recorded just after his shocking win, with the conductor the same as at the competition, invited to the US by Van Cliburn. This was the first classical recording to ever go platinum.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was neither the greatest nor the most innovative musician of his time, yet his contributions to music are still felt today, for it was his gift to write beautiful, evocative melodies that are not easily forgotten. From the love theme of the Romeo and Juliet Overture (1870), to the music of Swan Lake (1877) or his Sixth Symphony (Pathétique, 1893), to the well-known opening of the Piano Concerto No. 1, his music has become almost inescapable, a part of the collective conscious.
Yet the oft-told tale of the Piano Concerto’s conception reminds us that even Tchaikovsky’s melodies could fail to charm. He completed the work in December of 1874, and dedicated it to his teacher and friend, the great Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein.
He described the scene in a letter to a friend: “I played the first movement. Not a word, not a remark. If you only knew how disappointing, how unbearable it is when a man offers his friend a dish of his work, and the other eats and remains silent!” Tchaikovsky played the entire piece and then, he wrote, Rubinstein told him it was “worthless, impossible to play, the themes have been used before … there are only two or three pages that can be salvaged and the rest must be thrown away!”
Rubinstein offered to play the piece if Tchaikovsky rewrote it, but the composer replied, “I won’t change a single note,” and instead gave it to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow did not share Rubinstein’s distate, and premiered the work in Boston on October 25, 1875. Though a critic there called it an “extremely difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern Russian Concerto,” the audience was enthusiastic, as was a second audience in New York a week later, demanding an encore of the final movement. Rubinstein later recanted and performed the piece as well, while fifteen years later Tchaikovsky made some of the changes Rubinstein had requested. Rubinstein’s criticisms still have merit, for the piece is in some places nearly unplayable, while other passages for the soloist are barely audible. And the famous opening theme, for all its grandeur, is just as remarkable in its disappearance — for after storming in with blaring horns calls, sweeping strings, and maestoso ascending chords from the piano, the theme continues for only 110 measures and simply drops out of the piece, never to be heard again.
Yet it is at that point that the first movement, Allegro, may be said to truly begin. Two themes are introduced in double exposition, with the athletic first theme reappearing to interrupt the more restrained second at dramatic moments, and the piano “indulging in cadenza-like flights of startling execution,” as the Boston reviewer wrote in 1875. The movement ends in a burst of pyrotechnics from both orchestra and soloist.
The gentle Andantino simplice offers a respite from the bold gyrations of its predecessor, with the flute, oboe, and viola taking turns with the solo piano to develop the gentle, lilting first theme. The second theme is a rapid scherzo, based on a French song, “Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire” (One must amuse one’s self by dancing and laughing), a song favored by the opera singer Désirée Artôt, with whom Tchaikovsky had once been infatuated.
The first theme for the final Allegro is based on a Ukrainian folk song, “Viydi, viydi Ivanku,” (Come, come Ivanku), and it dances up and down in brilliant syncopations. A second, more lyrical theme sweeps in above the virtuosic piano line, and the piano answers in kind. The two themes build to a maestoso tutti followed by bravura fireworks all around.