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Composed: 1876

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

About this Piece

For Tchaikovsky, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was “a sunny genius” whose music “moves me to tears.” From childhood, he studied Mozart’s scores and grew especially fond of Don Giovanni. As an adult, he turned to Mozartian themes and style for refuge from his turbulent personal life, finding equilibrium and peace in the world of late-18th-century classicism. Tchaikovsky paid tribute to Mozart in several works: the Variations on a Rococo Theme, the Suite No. 4 (“Mozartiana”), and the pastoral interlude in The Queen of Spades.  

In late 1876, just after completing the passionate symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini, based on Dante’s tale of doomed lovers, Tchaikovsky escaped into the serenity of the rococo era, marked by a style popular in Russia and elsewhere in the late-Baroque/pre-Classical period. The rococo theme upon which Tchaikovsky based a charming series of variations scored for small orchestra and cello soloist was in fact not borrowed but the composer’s own, expertly fashioned in Mozartian classical style. While composing it, Tchaikovsky sought the help of German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, his Moscow Conservatory colleague, who also gave the premiere.   

Later, Fitzenhagen made significant and controversial changes to the piece to showcase the cello part, rearranging the order of Tchaikovsky’s original eight variations and even eliminating the final one. Fitzenhagen’s has remained the standard performing edition, however, despite the discovery of the composer’s original version. Elegant, modest, and beautifully proportioned, the Rococo Variations have become a beloved staple of the cello repertoire. —Harlow Robinson