Variations on a Rococo Theme

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Variations on a Rococo Theme in A major

Op. 33, TH57, Op. 33b, TH57b • “Rococo Variations”

About this work

Three of the most brilliant virtuoso display pieces in the symphonic literature all came from the tormented pen of Peter Tchaikovsky. These are his First Piano Concerto, his Violin Concerto, and this work for cello and orchestra. Done in the potentially tedious theme and variations format, the work begins with a simple theme and plumbs the depths and streaks to the heights of the capabilities of what is arguably the most beautiful and wide ranging of the stringed instruments of the orchestra.

The rococo theme itself is a simple one and if it tips its hat to the eighteenth century -- and Tchaikovsky's musical idol, Mozart -- it is thoroughly Tchaikovskyian and utterly Romantic. Each of the seven variations is skillfully crafted and none sounds contrived or forced -- always a potential trap in this form. Two expressive cadenzas further push the performance envelope of the cello and at least one variation is as powerfully mournful and expressive as anything the morose Russian ever composed. The work finally bursts forth into a joyous final variation and concludes with satisfying enthusiasm, but without overly produced bombast.

Rococo Variations were composed in short score near the end of 1876 for Wilhelm Fitzhagen, who was principal cellist at the Moscow Conservatory. Fitzhagen got a short score of the new variations so he could make the cello part idiomatic while Tchaikovsky was orchestrating the rest. This was introduced at a Moscow concert on November 30, 1877, when the composer was "recuperating" in Switzerland from the debacle of his one and only marriage earlier that year. He didn't know of revisions Fitzhagen made and presented to the publisher Jurgenson as "authorized." Tchaikovsky's own version had a brief introduction for strings before the theme itself, in two parts, then eight variations, and a coda. Fitzhagen added repeat marks to both halves of the theme, killed variation 8, rearranged the original order (to 1, 2, 7, 5, 6, 3, 4), and truncated the coda. Although biographer David Brown has damned this version as "deplorably corrupt," it remains charming, albeit less effective than the original, finally published in a 1956 Soviet edition of Tchaikovsky's complete works.

The genius in the work is the manner in which Tchaikovsky transforms the original theme into numerous and different personalities, each logical and effective. There is never a sense of stalling or contrivance, nor, in spite of the ferocious virtuoso demands in certain of the variations, of mere pyrotechnic display. It is the work of Tchaikovsky the musician and composer, not of the tormented and overwrought soul who could sometimes pound the listener into submission with emotional extremes. Those interested in beautiful and challenging works for cello and in hearing Tchaikovsky at his musical best should enjoy this piece immensely.