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Controversy over 'wrong' note in Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto 

27 June 2013

Hans von Bülow: was he responsible for the mysterious correction?
Hans von Bülow: was he responsible for the mysterious correction?© Tully Potter Collection

Pianist Stephen Hough has uncovered evidence to support his theory that there is a ‘wrong’ note in Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.

Amid discussion with the Tchaikovsky Research website about three different versions of the opening of the concerto – which originally featured spread arpeggios in the piano part, rather than the heroic chords known today – Hough discovered a correction in blue pencil within the manuscript of the first version of the concerto.

The Telegraph blogger referred to the find as ‘the most exciting musical discovery of my life’. Hough suggests that the ‘F’ in the flute part at the start of the second movement should be a ‘B flat’. The ‘F’ is in all scores (except Gerald Abrahams’s Eulenberg edition with no footnote or explanation) and on virtually all recordings (except Yevgeny Sudbin’s). Hough wrote: ‘I played it a few times in concerts with the “F” corrected to a “B flat” but only my instinct was my guide, and when I came to record it I felt I had to abide by the evidence rather than change a note according to my taste and preference.’

Hough’s musical defence of the ‘B flat’ includes the following: the theme only ever appears once with the F, the shape of the four-bar theme is a fifth up and a fifth down – spoilt by the appearance of the ‘F’, and when, in the coda, there is a change to two ‘A flats’ there is a change from the pattern – which has more impact if all the other times it has reached up to the ‘B flat’.

The correction in the manuscript was originally thought to have been made by Tchaikovsky, but Brett Langston, the historian and Tchaikovsky expert, revealed that the document was actually a copyist’s manuscript prepared for Hans von Bülow when he travelled round the world giving the very first performances of the concerto.

It is, however, the ‘cleanest’ version of the original score. Tchaikovsky’s autograph is riddled with later additions and corrections made by many different people over a long period of time, and unfortunately it is not yet available in digital form for detailed scrutiny.

Langston wrote to Hough: ‘It seems reasonable to assume that the correction in the Berlin manuscript would have been made by Bülow himself. As to whether Tchaikovsky knew and approved this – we don’t have evidence either way. It’s remarkable that there are so many questions concerning the text of the concerto that we still can’t answer after more than 120 years, but that’s why the editors of the new critical edition are seeking as many early editions as possible, in an attempt to peel back the various layers to (hopefully) establish which of them were authorised by the composer.’ 

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