Tchaikovsky: Rococo Variations
Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 33
PIOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
BORN: May 7, 1840. Kamsko‑Votkinsk, Viatka, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893. Saint Petersburg
COMPOSED: December 1876
WORLD PREMIERE: Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, to whom the score is dedicated and who is in fact responsible for much of the work as we hear it today, gave the first performance in Moscow on December 30, 1877, Nicolai Rubinstein conducted
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE: October 1908. Alwin Schroeder was soloist with Max Fiedler conducting the Boston Symphony
SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1923, with cellist Willem Dehe. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2017. Yo-Yo Ma was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted at last season’s Opening Night Gala
INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, plus strings
DURATION: About 18 mins
Though one would not infer it from the music, Tchaikovsky wrote his Variations on a Rococo Theme in grievous depression. His fourth opera, Vakula the Smith, one of the series of works between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies, had just enjoyed what he called “a brilliant failure” at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg; Sergei Taneyev had reported from Paris that Jules‑Étienne Pasdeloup had “shamefully bungled” Romeo and Juliet and that the work had not pleased; and he had learned that in Vienna, Hans Richter had had no success with Romeo either and that the feared Eduard Hanslick had written one of his most abusive reviews. All this happened within two weeks at the beginning of December 1876. But Tchaikovsky was learning to escape depression through work. Though ill, he pursued a project begun a couple of months earlier (and to be abandoned soon after), an opera based on Othello, and he rapidly composed the Rococo Variations.
These he wrote for his friend Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, then twenty‑eight and for the past six years principal cellist of the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow as well as professor at the Imperial Conservatory. Fitzenhagen intervened considerably in the shaping of “his” piece, so much so that we really ought to bill it as being composed by both men. The cellist changed the order of the variations, omitting one altogether, making other cuts and restitchings as he went, and he is responsible for much of the detail in the solo part, actually entering his alterations in Tchaikovsky’s autograph. Tchaikovsky did not explain Fitzenhagen’s role to his publisher, Jürgenson, and the latter wrote to him: “Horrible Fitzenhagen insists on changing your cello piece. He wants to “cello” it up and claims you gave him permission. Good God! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!” But Tchaikovsky, in another fit of unsureness about his own work, yielded authority to his German-trained friend and acquiesced in Jürgenson’s publication of the work as recomposed by Fitzenhagen—with piano in 1878 and in full score eleven years later. Moreover, in 1887 Tchaikovsky made sure to send his next piece for cello and orchestra, the Pezzo capriccioso, Opus 62, to Fitzenhagen for vetting.
One can easily argue that Tchaikovsky’s original is better than Fitzenhagen’s recension, yet it is beyond dispute that Fitzenhagen himself enjoyed immense success with this grateful, gracious, and charming piece whenever he played it, and so have most of his successors. The theme, so far as we know, is Tchaikovsky’s own. Its invention and what he builds upon it form one of his most warm-hearted declarations of love to what he perceived as the lost innocence of the eighteenth century.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.