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Composed: 1876
Length: c. 18 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

Tchaikovsky’s abiding love of Mozart and an idealized 18th century is one of the many conflicting facets of his complex personality. Passion and self-dramatization existed side by side with precision and elegance. His opera The Queen of Spades evokes a rococo world, and many of his shorter pieces (piano music and songs) suggest Haydn or Boccherini as a model.

The Variations on a Rococo Theme was the first work to plunge unashamedly into this world, making a strong and striking contrast with the unrestrained passion of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini that preceded it. But by this time (the fall of 1876) Tchaikovsky’s inner tensions and the relentless self-realization that embittered his whole life were already evident. Perhaps these yawning differences between one work and the next reflect his distraughtly atomized state of mind in those years.

Tchaikovsky always yearned to compose such a work, so long had his admiration for 18th-century rococo been implanted in him; this urge, combined with his observation, on hearing the great Russian cellist Karl Davidov in March 1875, that the cello was poorly served for solo repertoire, led him to write a concert piece that explicitly recalled Haydn’s form and Haydn’s orchestra. In December 1876 he simply told his brother that he was writing a piece for cello and orchestra without saying why or whom it was for. Davidov had just become director of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, so if Tchaikovsky wrote the Variations in the hope that he would perform it, it may have been the burden of his new duties that prevented him from taking it on. Possibly, too, Davidov might have been unwilling to be featured in a work that was so deliberately old-fashioned.

The cellist who gave its first performance in Moscow in November 1877 was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the cello teacher at the Moscow Conservatoire and a member of the quartet that had played Tchaikovsky’s First Quartet in 1871. In Tchaikovsky’s manuscript full score the first five measures of the first variation and six measures of the fourth variation are in Fitzenhagen’s hand, so he was a collaborator in the composition as well as its first exponent. His revisions were quite extensive throughout, all of them accepted by Tchaikovsky when the work was published with a piano reduction of the orchestral part. A dozen years later the full score was published, still with Fitzenhagen’s alterations, which the composer permitted even though he was heard to say: “Look what that idiot Fitzenhagen did to my piece, he altered everything!”

Evidently the notoriously volatile composer had earlier congratulated Fitzenhagen on his contributions and later scalded him with invective. In 1954 the work was re-edited in its original form by Soviet editors so that cellists now have the option of either version. Jian Wang will perform the standard version as prepared by Fitzenhagen and (at one time, at least) approved by the composer.

A brief introduction prepares the presentation of the theme by the soloist, a tune of immaculate symmetry and grace, lightly accompanied, and having both its halves repeated. The orchestra appends a coda in a more personal, chromatic style that is to be a regular feature of each variation.

Variation 1 preserves the tempo and key and allows the soloist some triplet decorations. Neither half is repeated, but the coda is there.

Variation 2 introduces a faster motion and shorter phrases in dialogue. The coda is still there, extended to take the music into a new key for…

Variation 3, an expressive slow waltz, longer than the previous variations.

Variation 4 returns to the original key for a grazioso version of the theme that brings the coda in at the end of each phrase over low held notes on the cello.

The flute introduces Variation 5, which gives the soloist a stream of trills and brilliant passages and eventually a cadenza.

Variation 6 moves to the minor mode with an expressive melody with a more romantic flavor; the coda is especially plaintive in the minor, like something out of Eugene Onegin.

The last variation restores the main key and sets a swift tempo for some brilliant exchanges between the soloist and the orchestra, particularly the winds.

 If Tchaikovsky’s purpose was to make a real contribution to the cello soloist’s repertoire, he succeeded superbly. Fitzenhagen proved to be a worthy ambassador for the work; when he performed it in Wiesbaden in 1879, it greatly impressed Liszt and von Bülow. In the age of high Romanticism, a neo-classic work of such fine craftsmanship was something to be treasured.

– Hugh Macdonald