Variations on a Rococo Theme Op. 33 for Cello and Orchestra (1876)
Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky was admitted to the first class of the newly opened St Petersburg Conservatory aged 21, shortly after commencing his formal musical studies. After graduating, Tchaikovsky was recruited by Nikolai Rubinstein, brother of Tchaikovsky’s teacher Anton, to join the new Moscow Conservatory. Here he met fellow teacher, the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who inspired Tchaikovsky to write the Variations on a Rococo Theme.
This period in Tchaikovsky’s life was mired by financial troubles (prior to the later patronage of Nadeja von Meck that allowed Tchaikovsky the freedom to compose), and he fell into one of his periodic bouts of depression. During 1876 he composed his popular and showy Marche Slave, the dark and brooding Francesca da Rimini and these cheerful and elegant variations. More starkly contrasting works are difficult to imagine.
Tchaikovsky sought help from his friend for advice on the technicalities of writing for the cello, but got rather more than he bargained for! Fitzenhagen ended up writing much of the virtuosic cello part himself, rearranged the order of the variations (possibly to draw more applause), and deleted one in the process. This is the most common version performed today, although a reconstruction of Tchaik-ovsky’s original was made in 1941.
“Rococo” here refers to “old-fashioned” rather than “florid” and the tuneful theme that Tchaikovsky composed is simple and elegant. However, the seven variations that follow make this one of the most challenging works in the cello repertoire, and span the entire range of the instrument. Most of the variations include a brief codetta played by the woodwind, providing an overall unity to the structure of the work.
Performed: 17/8/2014, 24/8/2014