The Variations on a Rococo Theme,[a] Op. 33, for cello and orchestra was the closest Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ever came to writing a full concerto for cello and orchestra. The style was inspired by Mozart, Tchaikovsky's role model, and makes it clear that Tchaikovsky admired the Classical style very much. However, the Theme is not Rococo in origin, but actually an original theme in the Rococo style.
Tchaikovsky wrote this piece for and with the help of Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German cellist and fellow-professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Fitzenhagen gave the premiere in Moscow on November 30, 1877, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting. This was perhaps the only hearing of the Variations as Tchaikovsky wrote the piece, until 1941, when it was played in Moscow without Fitzenhagen's by-then-standard emendations.
The piece is scored for a reduced orchestra consisting of pairs of each of the four basic woodwind instruments, two horns and the usual strings, like the typical late 18th-century orchestra without trumpets or percussion.
The piece is composed of a theme and eight variations (seven in Fitzenhagen's version), making up roughly 20 minutes of music. Part of the difficulty of the piece lies in this continuous and prolonged format, devoid of the usual extended orchestral tuttis allowing the soloist to rest for a few moments. The soloist is also challenged by mostly having to play in the high register using the thumb position.
The piece was written between December 1876 and March 1877, immediately following his tone poem Francesca da Rimini, and compared to the vehemence and intensity of Francesca, the Variations show a new elegant classical detachment. While the theme upon which the composition is based is Tchaikovsky's own, the graceful contours that make up the first half of this theme show clearly which style period Tchaikovsky had in mind.
Tchaikovsky had rarely been attracted to the variation form before, except for an eloquent piece for piano solo in F major, Op. 19, No. 6. The utility of this form became apparent for what he now set out to accomplish. In a traditional concerto format, structural complexities and dramatic issues that would have clashed with the 18th-century detachment and finesse could not have been avoided. A neater and easier solution was, in each variation, to retain the melodic outlines and harmonic support outlined in his initial theme.
The potential problem with this approach could be a lack of variety between variations. This would effectively kill the piece. Thanks to his consummate craftsmanship, Tchaikovsky avoided this trap. There is barely a phrase within each variation whose relationship with its progenitor is not explicit. However, no two variations assemble their constituent phrases in the same manner, nor build to the same proportions.
One device which helps Tchaikovsky greatly in this regard is a codetta attached to the end of the theme, to which is attached in turn a quasi-cadential or linking extension. Tchaikovsky varied this extension in length and direction, further modifying the proportions of individual variations and providing a bridge passage from one variation to the next. He even mixed the codetta material with the theme itself in the Andante grazioso variation (No. 4 in Fitzenhagen's arrangement, No. 5 in Tchaikovsky's original order).
While the tasteful invention and refined craftsmanship that Tchaikovsky admired in classical-era music is thoroughly in evidence, the structure he intended in his ordering of variations was subverted by the work's dedicatee. Tchaikovsky scholar Dr. David Brown points out that, in the composer's original order, the first five variations show "a progressive expansion and evolution of the theme's structure ... the sixth briefly recalling the original phrases of the theme before the seventh, C major variation, new in meter and key," reveals "a vast melodic sweep," providing "the real peak of the piece," after which the final variation (the one Fitzenhagen eventually jettisoned) would guide listeners back toward the point where the piece had started.
As music critic Michael Steinberg points out, "Fitzenhagen intervened considerably in shaping what he considered "his" piece." Much of the detail in the solo part is his and was actually written by him into Tchaikovsky's autograph. "More importantly," Steinberg adds, "he dropped one entire variation and reshuffled the order of the others. This, in turn, necessitated further cuts and splices."
|Order of Variations|
|Variation II||Same but with ending of Var. V|
|Variation III||Variation VI|
|Variation IV||Variation VII|
|Variation V||Variation IV|
|Variation VI||Variation V with ending of Var. II|
|Variation VII||Variation III|
Tchaikovsky had in fact asked Fitzenhagen to go through the Variations--something about which the composer apparently neglected to inform his publisher, P. I. Jurgenson. In the autograph score the majority of the solo part is actually in Fitzenhagen's hand and the cellist apparently exercised the role of reviser vigorously enough to lead Jurgenson to protest to Tchaikovsky, "Horrible Fitzenhagen insists on changing your cello piece. He wants to 'cello' it up and claims you gave him permission. Good God! Tchaïkovski revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!"
Fitzenhagen was proud of the success he had in performing the work, and in a report he wrote Tchaikovsky after playing it at the Wiesbaden Festival in June 1879, he gave a clue as to why he rearranged the order of variations as he did. "I produced a furore with your variations. I pleased so greatly that I was recalled three times, and after the Andante variation (D minor) there was stormy applause. Liszt said to me: 'You carried me away! You played splendidly," and regarding your piece he observed: 'Now there, at last, is real music!'"
The D minor variation Fitzenhagen mentions is actually the third in Tchaikovsky's original sequence. Fitzenhagen may have thought it more effective later in the piece because of its ability to draw applause. He exchanged it with Tchaikovsky's slow penultimate variation, the one in 3/4 time in C major. The Allegro vivace variation which now followed the D minor contrasted very effectively. However, the eighth and final variation was extremely similar to the Allegro vivace. Fitzenhagen did not hesitate to jettison this variation and then tack the final 32 bars of the piece onto the Allegro vivace.
Nevertheless, in one of his occasional fits of insecurity about his work, especially when it came to form, Tchaikovsky allowed the changes to stand. One of Fitzenhagen's students, Anatoliy Brandukov, described an incident eleven years later:
"On one of my visits to Pyotr Ilyich [in 1889] I found him very upset, looking as though he was ill. When I asked: "What's the matter with you?" -- Pyotr Ilyich, pointing to the writing desk, said: 'Fitzenhagen's been here. Look what he's done with my composition -- everything's been changed!' When I asked what action he was going to take concerning this composition, Pyotr Ilyich replied: 'The Devil take it! Let it stand as it is!'"
The Variations were played in Fitzenhagen's order until the Russian cellist Victor Kubatsky started researching the piece for himself. By subjecting the manuscript to X-ray experiments, he discovered that Tchaikovsky's text had been inked over. As a result of this discovery, the original version was finally published and has since been recorded. Nevertheless, most cellists still use the Fitzenhagen version of the piece. A large part of the problem was that, while the Russian complete edition of Tchaikovsky's complete works included the original version of the Variations, the State Publishing House issued neither the orchestral parts nor a piano reduction for study purposes.