Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky: Piano Concerto Number One in B Minor

It is hard to imagine a more accessible piece for anyone wandering where to start listening to classical music than Tchaikowsky’s : Piano Concerto Number One. Tchaikowsky was Rachmaninov’s teacher and this work gets almost as much airplay as any of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos. The first movement is so romantic and passionate that it was pirated and turned into the popular song “Tonight We Love”, and you also see it listed in those compilations hawked on television. You know the ones: “The Greatest Love Themes of All Times.”

In high school, shortly after I discovered the piece, I was pleased to see it used in a comedy movie called The Tiger Makes Out.” This film (circa 1967) starred Eli Wallach who plays a self-proclaimed “Superman,” having gorged himself on the ideas of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Sartre. He lives in a small basement apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. Like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, he believe he must perform some great act to prove his superiority. He conceives a plan for kidnapping a beautiful woman, who’ll recognize his genius and become his love slave. The plan goes a bit wrong, however, when he throws a gunny sack a woman on the street. Back in his apartment, he unwraps her to find a middle-aged woman with marital problems. He screams: “What is this? Some kind of joke?” In a kind of O’Henry twist, she turns out much cleverer than he. Eventually, they fall in love and fall to the floor in a passionate embrace with Tchaikowsky’s Piano Concerto Number One whirling around on a portable record player next to them.

Not a bad scene, especially considering how passionate this piece is. It starts out with the horns giving a rousing blast followed by the piano that plays one-two-three chords repeatedly as the orchestra plays the melody. The piano then takes that melody and weaves lots of variations with it. The second movement starts with a single flute playing an achingly beautiful air, which the piano then takes up. The woodwinds take it back for a while and embellish it and give it back to the piano, which then does intricate wonders with it. A bash of the tympani jolt us out of our reverie in the final movement, which is marked “Con Fuoco” (with fire) which nicely sums up the energy and demanding piano work all the way through to the finale. Altogether, it is quite rousing.

I told a friend, John Kim, that after Rachmaninov, I intended to write about the other piano concertos that transfixed me during high school-those of Greig, Schumann, and Brahms. His reaction was: “Gee, you’re really going right into the heart of the Romantic period then. Aren’t you going to write about any light pieces?” I told him that my goal was to present the pieces in the order they came to me, and these all arrived in my late teens.

Perhaps I gravitated toward during this time period because they gave me solace amid the turbulence of those years. As I’ve said, I was wrestling with depression caused by and resulting in insecurity. Other people self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, sex and food. Listening to music was my way of expressing and experiencing my emotions in a controlled way.

Many of my high school friends were straight A students, gifted athletes, and the most popular kids in class. Yet when they got into drugs and alcohol, they went completely overboard. Some dropped out of school. The brother of another shattered his body in a horrible alcohol-related car wreck and lay in a coma for a month. Other got married too soon, ruining their chance of a professional career. Another went into the Navy to find the discipline could not impose on himself. Considering my personality, I don’t know how I would have turned out had I not found music to assuage my growing pains.

You might say “What a bourgeois, spoiled waste of talent. Four fifths of the world’s population don’t have enough to eat and we in America kill ourselves with drugs.” Perhaps this is true. Back then we didn’t see it that way. We all thought we were supermen. We could do anything and thought we had enough good sense to pull ourselves back from the brink. Maybe our comfort gave us this false sense of security. Or maybe, having had all of our material comforts provided us, we felt we needed to take these risks to feel alive.

Seems like we could all be more efficient. Too bad “culture” gets such short shrift in our consumerist society. It used to be the glue that held society together and passed down the “lessons-learned” so you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel with each generation. And it really wasn’t stultifying to have to learn a discipline like music. Once you master what’s gone before, you have good foundation on which to build. Just as Tchaikowsky learned from and built upon the work of Anton Rubenstein and Rimsky-Korsakov, so did his pupil, Rachmaninov, who carried on and went even further. Superman’s myth–that you can leap-frog over buildings in a single bound–is decidedly false.

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