chaikovsky title

  1. If "concertos are viewed, witnessed as well as heard," what does the beginning of Chaikovsky’s Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor, op. 23, look like in performance? This work, described by its composer as "a duel rather than a duet,"28 is probably the most popular piano concerto in the classical music repertoire. In the Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso which opens the first movement of the concerto, sight and sound combine to tell a "relationship story" of musical confrontation:

  2. A massed orchestra occupies the stage, an impersonal phalanx of instrumentalists focused on its dominating leader, the conductor on his podium. In front of them all is the soloist, commandeering an impressive grand piano. After a subtle nod between soloist and conductor, indicating that both are prepared for the performative ritual ahead, the conductor’s upbeat triggers the orchestra’s opening fanfare, a descending four-note motive in the French horns, followed by the tutti chords that punctuate the statement like affirming shouts. Meanwhile, the pianist waits. Small credits the soloist with "subversive energies" during a concerto’s orchestral exposition: "In the concert hall, the sight of the soloist, still and silent, sitting at the piano …, waiting for the moment of entry, warns the audience of the potential for disturbance that exists behind the bland surface of the opening tutti. His or her absence of movement bring a rare visual element to the symphonic drama."29 (But this concerto’s short introduction is hardly bland!)

  3. Suddenly, then, the pianist launches into sonorous D-flat major chords bounding majestically across the keyboard, a soloistic opening salvo equally as famous as the orchestra’s melodic theme. This entrance provides an excellent example of what Kerman calls "the physicality of the concerto,"30 for it enacts bodily, through pianistic gestures, a visual as well as acoustic confrontation between the "concerto sound-bodies" of the soloist and the orchestra. Delivered by the pianist’s powerful arm motions, these chords convey a sense of strength and assertion on the part of the soloist. Within a single measure of playing, the "identity" of the soloist as a concerto agent has been established: strong, determined, dignified. (Listen to the opening) Though the two concerto agents seem to be at odds here—the piano hammers out strict "vertical" chords while the orchestra plays a sweeping "horizontal" tune—these chords actually buttress the orchestral melody rhythmically and harmonically.31

  4. But in the course of this opening section, the initial relationship of concerto agents is called into question as the musical "battle" unfolds. What had been an aggressive initiative on the part of the soloist becomes a less impressive thematic reiteration when the piano attempts to take the melody itself. Kerman considers the piano replay of the tune an "anticlimax" because a solo piano, despite its melodic embellishments and "twitchy acciaccatura rhythms," cannot produce "effusive melody" as richly as orchestral strings can: "The piano cuts its losses, fails to finish the tune, and drifts into a rather petulant cadenza instead."33 Though Kerman does not continue further with his descriptive analysis, the subsequent orchestral resumption of the theme indicates that the concerto’s opening musical drama has ultimately been decided. After back-and-forth bantering with the piano over the four-note fanfare motive, the orchestra triumphantly regains the melody, and the original melody/accompaniment hierarchy of the concerto agents is restored. The aggressive challenge of the soloist’s opening volley has been contained by the greater ensemble, and the struggle is over: "After the opening tune is heard two and a half times it disappears, notoriously, forever."30

  5. The dramatic potential of this "relationship story" enacted musically and visually through the opening of the Chaikovsky First Concerto has not been lost on Hollywood. The Great Lie34 (1941) showcases the concerto both in its plot and on its soundtrack to signify a similar "duel" between the female soloist-protagonist and the social and romantic relationships she must battle. The opening credits, for example, bring in the concerto directly with the Warner Brothers studio logo, and the music continues along with a visual backdrop of a pianist’s hands performing the part with vigor. During this credits sequence, nine different shots of the hands and the keyboard are spliced together, each with dramatic over- and under-lighting to enhance the black-and-white contrast of the grand piano, the keyboard, and the playing hands. This will clearly be a story about a pianist, and the confrontational musical relationships enacted by the concerto’s introduction seem to forecast a similarly melodramatic narrative.

  6. The Great Lie is a story about the fierce rivalry between concert pianist Sandra Kovak and Southern belle Maggie Patterson over the affections of playboy Pete van Allen. Sandra—not only a "great pianist," but also a "great beauty"—is characterized as an impulsive and "extravagant" woman who flouts conventions of appropriate feminine behavior. She indulges in drunken bacchanals, and she proclaims lines like "Oh, I shouldn’t, but how I love to do things I shouldn’t!"35 Director Edmund Goulding outlined her character with three attributes: "A piano, brandy, and men. In that order!"36 Her character embodies the transgressive liberated woman who is nevertheless a sympathetic figure at heart: her admirable talent and self-sufficiency balance her temperamental, irrational nature.

  7. As the story opens, Sandra’s just-consummated marriage to Pete turns out to be invalid, as her divorce from her previous husband had not yet been finalized. She makes no claim to be an ideal wife, anyway ("You’ve got to be patient with me, Pete. I’ve been a bachelor so long—so have you, for that matter. I should really have been a dutiful wife and whipped up a little home dinner for you today"). Pete wants to remarry the day Sandra’s divorce becomes finalized, but this happens to be the same day she is scheduled to play the Chaikovsky concerto in Philadelphia. He declares his proposal an ultimatum; she refuses to cancel her performance; he leaves her. In a scene enacting the concerto’s dramatically "visual" introduction, Sandra retreats to the piano and angrily pounds out the opening solo chords. The orchestral melody subsequently joins in as the scene shifts to the Philadelphia performance. In this short (1-1/2 minute) encapsulation of the concerto, the music cuts from the opening theme directly to Sandra’s closing cadenza in the last movement, the final theme played in unison by both piano and orchestra, and the brilliant virtuosic passages of the coda. Sandra, an undaunted and heroic soloist, receives a rousing ovation for her determined performance.

  8. After several turns of the melodramatic plot,37 Sandra attempts to reclaim Pete’s love through her child, but she is finally thwarted when he learns the truth of the deception and chooses to stay with Maggie, his long-suffering and devoted wife. In the closing scene, the concerto’s visual drama is presented again,
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    but with a deciding "moral." Sandra retreats to the piano, and again pounds out the concerto’s defiant introductory chords, but this time her gestures signal her resigned acquiescence and defeat in the battle over Pete and the baby. The orchestra enters with the opening theme as the camera falls back on Maggie and Pete, the couple now restored to domestic bliss. This triumphant melody underscoring the closing credits provides a musical signification of their victory (as "orchestra") over the no-longer heroic pianist. Both the story and the soundtrack of the film confirm the lesson of the concerto-ritual—the reconciliation of the appropriate relationship as part of the "social order."

  9. The Great Lie enjoyed a successful run in theaters and further popularized the Chaikovsky First Concerto through its romantic story and star actors. Mary Astor (Pictured at piano, with Davis) Davis-Astor imagewon an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra Kovak, and at the awards ceremony she thanked two people: her co-star Bette Davis and Chaikovsky.38 Within a year, at least two arrangements of the concerto’s opening melody—"as featured in The Great Lie"—were published for amateur pianists,39 and an unprecedented number of popular song adaptations of this theme appeared: in 1941 and 1942 alone, at least ten different popular songs based on the Chaikovsky concerto were published. The most popular of these, "Tonight We Love," became a best-selling instrumental hit for dance bandleader Freddy Martin (featuring pianist Jack Fina), and a "top ten" success in its vocal version featuring Clyde Rogers.40

  10. While these Tin Pan Alley song adaptations feature the typical trite rhymes, in each case they assign a quality of romantic desire to the opening tune, as in "No Greater Love"41:

    No greater love can I feel, Than I am feeling for you,
    All other loves are unreal, Your love alone is always true …

    Certain songs acknowledge the compositional origins—or even the non-diegetic soundtrack applications—great lieof the borrowed tune, as in "Concerto for Two" (Arrangement for "The Great Lie" pictured) 42:

    And when we kiss there’s a sound, Like violins all around,
    And then the moment when we kiss again,
    Our song becomes a thrilling concerto for two, for me and you.

    Whether or not this flood of popular, romanticized song settings of the Chaikovsky concerto43 can be credited to the success of The Great Lie, still they demonstrate the role of popular culture in establishing and perpetuating the associations of romance and desire surrounding the piano concerto repertoire.

  11. Aside from the famous introduction, another moment of dramatic relationship between concerto agents in the Chaikovsky concerto has been appropriated for a melodramatic film story. In the development section of the first movement, the soloist takes over a repetitive four-note pattern from the orchestra, and plays it in rapid octaves which then lead into a cadenza. In Kerman’s analysis, this passage is another example of "replay" (like the piano’s assumption of the first theme in the concerto’s opening), specifically here an instance of "aggressive" replay. At this moment of "great confrontation" between the concerto agents, "[the piano] finally breaks in—crashes in—with double-octave scale passages replaying material from the orchestral climax … The increasingly heavy-handed orchestral development is cut off, rejected violently (but so idiomatically) by solo replay."44 It is this musical "confrontation" that serves as the climactic moment of relationship in another cinematic dramatization of the Chaikovsky concerto, from the 1951 French film Ombre et lumière/Shadow and Light.45

  12. Like The Great Lie, Ombre et lumière is a love-triangle story that pits a female pianist against her rival (this time, the pianist’s mentally disturbed half-sister) over the love of a man they both desire, but hereSignoret image—in a reversal of Sandra Kovak’s fate—the pianist-protagonist does marry him, and thus may succeed in her musical/romantic struggle. (Simone Singoret pictured in Ombre et lumière) As the story begins, Isabelle Leritz performs the Chaikovsky concerto repeatedly on a concert tour, until one evening her left hand cramps up from tension just before the octave passage. Frightened by dizzying hallucinations during the orchestral tutti, and physically unable to play the demanding passage at the appropriate moment (even after the conductor repeats the section), she suffers a nervous breakdown and collapses onstage. Isabelle cannot counter the challenge presented by the orchestra in this moment of "aggressive replay," and this precipitates her initial defeat.

  13. Later, after further plot machinations involving mental illness and her vindictive half-sister Caroline,46 Isabelle determines to face her demons in public by performing the dreaded concerto once again. In the climactic concert scene, Caroline looks on smugly, expecting Isabelle to fail once again in the "aggressive replay" passage, but Isabelle now has the reassurance of her husband’s love and support. When the decisive moment arrives, she begins the octaves too slowly, but quickly picks up tempo and conquers the passage. After the successful performance, the happy couple celebrates Isabelle’s achievement, while Caroline sulks out of the hall, defeated in her own way by the concerto-struggle.

  14. One of the advertising slogans for Ombre et lumière described Isabelle as "a famous female pianist who must choose between fame or love." The identical catch-phrase could apply equally well to "Concerto," a short story by Borden Chase published in 1939 in the mass-circulation American Magazine.47 "Concerto" relates the romantic struggles endured by the young pianist Myra Hassman as she studies under—and falls desperately in love with—a temperamental Russian virtuoso named Goronoff. In the course of her concerto-struggle, Myra must ultimately decide between an impossible reconciliation with her master, or renunciation of her career for true love.

  15. In the story, Myra’s climactic concert début is a performance of the Chaikovsky concerto in Carnegie Hall, with Goronoff himself conducting. Chase depicts the confrontational interaction of concerto agents enacted in the opening of the work,48 and parallels the progression of Myra’s and Goronoff’s "relationship story" to the structure of the Chaikovsky concerto itself, wherein a "masculine" theme—the opening melody—competes for domination over the concerto’s "feminine" themes. "In every concerto one theme must predominate," Myra is told, "and that is the heroic—the male theme."49

    "A concerto is like that, Myra. There is a beginning, then a blossoming out … what you call the exposition. Then, in the end, like a man who has lived, you see the result of his life."50

    This gendered contest of thematic material hardly works as a formal analysis of the composition (the opening supposedly "masculine" theme is missing from the rest of the work!), but it is one example of how musical passages can be personified, and how a relationship between performing human agents can be represented through the interaction of concerto agents. While the relationship between Myra and Goronoff is hierarchical, it is initially sympathetic: when the orchestra threatens to overwhelm the soloist in its speed and volume, the conductor is there to empower her.51

  16. All goes well in the performance until Myra’s "master" begins to imagine a personal affront in her surpassing musical and technical mastery of these themes; suddenly their collaboration becomes a confrontation enacted between the two concerto agents, soloist and orchestra. Myra, sensing Goronoff’s anger and insecurity, realizes that to gain the performance would be to lose his love, and she attempts to convey her devotion through the second movement’s "feminine" theme.52 The second movement brings Myra’s moment of glory, for its opening theme is "her" theme, "the one she loved," represented as a feminine and maternal melody.53 Myra’s melody con amore bears some comparison to yet another popular song based on the same theme from the concerto, "Darling I Love You"54:

    Darling, I love you! What more, dear, can I say?
    Except you’re lovely, You’re more than lovely, You are my inspiration …

    But this performance proves to be a decisive turning point in Myra’s life, for she unintentionally alienates the jealous Goronoff, and then, out of grief and dismay, decides to abandon her concert career altogether. She marries George, a childhood friend who has always loved her, and together they raise a daughter, a pianist who makes her own Carnegie Hall debut with the same concerto years later. Chase’s story would be filmed seven years after its publication as I’ve Always Loved You, but featuring the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto instead of the Chaikovsky as the music of Myra’s romantic struggle.


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28. Cited in Small, 182.

29. Small, 181.

30. CC, 21.

31. This "confrontational" relationship between the two concerto agents was not the original compositional conception. As Norris describes it, "The opening was originally accompanied by gentle harped chords on the piano, which matched the string pizzicato and balanced the lightly-scored melody. … [Chaikovsky] was persuaded to replace his delicate beginning with the bombastic fortissimo chords that now form so important a part of his concerto’s public image." Norris, 32.

32. CC, 7.

33. CC, 9.

34. Directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Bette Davis (Maggie Patterson), Mary Astor (Sandra Kovak), and George Brent (Pete van Allen).

35. The portrayal of Sandra Kovak as a pianist is pure Hollywood invention. In the original 1936 novel by Polan Banks, The Far Horizon, the corresponding character is an actress.

36. Quoted in The Motion Picture Guide, ed. Jay Robert Nash (Chicago: Cinebooks, 1985): 1098.

37. Disillusioned Pete takes the opportunity of Sandra’s professional dedication to run off and marry Maggie, his erstwhile fiancée, instead. Some days later he is off on a government expedition to South America, during which his plane crashes and he is assumed dead. When Sandra finds herself pregnant with his child, Maggie, his legal widow, strikes a strategic bargain with her rival: Pete’s child in exchange for lifelong financial security. The deal between the two women becomes their "great lie" when the father does return, alive, to find Maggie caring for the baby as her own.

38. Whitney Stine, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974).

39. Theme from Tschaikowsky’s Concerto no. 1," arranged by Hugo Frey (New York: Robbins Music, 1941), and "Melody from Tschaikowsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor," arranged by Ernest Haywood (London: Keith Prowse, 1942). For concert pianists, Percy Grainger wrote a transcription of "The Opening of Tschaikovsky’s B-minor [sic] Piano Concerto" (New York: G. Schirmer, 1943).

40. Arranged by Ray Austin, lyrics by Bobby Worth (Hollywood: Maestro Music, 1941). Frank Sinatra also sings a portion of the song in Anchors Aweigh (1945), with Jose Iturbi playing the piano. When Iturbi tells him the tune is by Chaikovsky, Sinatra’s character replies: "You must be mistaken, buddy. Freddy Martin wrote that. I heard it on the radio at least a thousand times!" Iturbi retorts patiently, "Well, you know, those fellas, they steal from each other!"

41. Lyrics by John Digges (New York: Robbins Music, 1941).

42. Arranged by Robert C. Haring, lyrics by Jack Lawrence (New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., 1941).

43. Additional published song adaptations of themes from the Chaikovsky concerto: "Dream Melody," lyrics by Claude Lapham (New York: Claude Lapham, 1941); "The Song Tschaikowsky Wrote," lyrics by Artie Jones (New York: Mills Music, 1941); "The Stars Look Down," music by Robert Stolz, lyrics by Gladys Shelly and Judith Byron (New York: Alfred Music, 1941); "Lilacs and Love," by Con Carr and Ted Larrson (San Francisco: Harmony House, 1941); "Silent Love," arranged by Carl Deis, lyrics by Margaret Bristol (New York: G. Schirmer, 1941); "Down Thru the Years" [a fox trot in cut-time!], lyrics by Bill Livingston (New York: Stasny Music, 1941); "A Million Years," lyrics by David Ormont (New York: Congress Music, 1942); "My Heart Is Yours," arranged by D. Savino, lyrics by Ted Fetter (New York: J. J. Robbins, 1947).

44. CC, 43.

45. Directed by Henri Calef, starring Simone Signoret (Isabelle Leritz), Maria Casarès (Caroline), and Jacques Berthier (Jacques Barrois).

46. After recuperating in a sanatorium, Isabelle learns that she is prone to a relapse of hereditary insanity. She falls in love with a handsome young man, unaware that he has recently jilted her half-sister Caroline. Tortured by Caroline’s resentful bitterness over their affair and by the stigma of her own professional failure, Isabelle elopes with her new lover and renounces her career.

47. "Concerto Story," The American Magazine 128 (December 1939): 53-148.

48. "’Da, ta, ta, ta-a-a—da, ta, ta, ta-a-a—da, ta, ta, ta-a-a!’ Myra was singing the orchestral opening! Then, one, two, three—and one, two—her hands caught the keys and the first crashing octave chords came from the piano. One, two, three—and the orchestra was following, following, playing the theme. … The heroic theme—the male theme. And Myra was beating the chords back at them. Hard and cold and very exact—just as Goronoff had taught" (129).

49. "Concerto Story," The American Magazine 58.

50. "Concerto Story," The American Magazine 128.

51. "Soon she had caught them. Caught the orchestra. They were both racing along in a mad and wild chase. Hand in hand, each straining to lead. But Myra forged ahead. It was her night. She was queen. She was the soloist. And as the movement drew toward its end, a slow, swelling sense of power crept into her body" (130).

52. "And, as the movement swept on to the cadenza that would herald the return of the first theme, Myra answered. With the skill of a thousand nights of practice she rounded the theme and tried to tell Goronoff he was her love" (130).

53. "First, a few plucked notes from the strings, delicate, hesitant, and filled with promise. Then, like a woman coming over a far green hill, the theme moved into being. And with its coming Myra came of age" (130). "And she played it as a mother might to her child. Played it through to the change of rhythm and the change of emotion that divided the second movement. This was faster, laughing and light. Myra’s hands quickened their pace. They raced along and romped with the notes. Faster and faster and ever so lightly. Playing for Goronoff. Playing for the master. Making him proud, and prouder than proud" (148).

54. Adapted by Justin Ring, lyrics by Fred Hager and Lillie Keyser (New York: Edward Schuberth, 1942).

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