Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 10, 1921, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Ilya Bronson
“Do you know what Rococo means?” Tchaikovsky asked Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, professor of cello at the Moscow Conservatory, and answered himself: “It is a carefree feeling of well-being,” and he sang a melody, which had the rhythm of a gavotte.
Such was the origin, according to a Tchaikovsky intimate, of the composition of his Variations on a Rococo Theme. Fitzenhagen, to whom the work is dedicated, premiered the work in Moscow on November 30, 1877. In one of his letters Tchaikovsky emphasized that Rococo was, to his mind, a pure style which emerged at the time of Haydn and Mozart, and that the meaning of the term had deteriorated because of the coloristic excesses of romantic composers.
After a brief orchestral introduction, Moderato quasi andante, the Rococo theme, in A major, is presented by the cello solo; the tempo is Moderato semplice.
There are seven variations in all. The first two, which are marked Tempo del tema, are ornamental and elegant in style. The third variation, Andante sostenuto, in the key of C major, is a waltz; the Rococo theme is artfully dislocated, altering the metrical position of the cadences; in this new guise it assumes the character of a Russian folk song. The fourth variation, Andante grazioso, suggesting a Rococo portrait by Grueze or a pastoral landscape by Fragonard, is a courtly gavotte in the French manner. There is a pearly run of cerulean chromatics in the cello solo. In the fifth variation, Allegro moderato, the flute recapitulates the melody in its original form. An elaborate and effective cadenza, appended to this variation, is not found in Tchaikovsky’s original manuscript; it was probably added by the German cellist Hugo Becker, who often played the work. The sixth variation, Andante, in a minor key, has the air of a Russian elegy. The final, seventh variation, Allegro vivace, brings the suite to a brilliant conclusion, in a fine succession of A-major chords.
— Nicolas Slonimsky