I am just so excited to get started in learning the Rococo Variations for Solo Cello and Orchestra this summer that I decided it would be a great use of my time do some research for my unit 10 blog about the history behind this brilliant work by Maestro Tchaikovsky! Please enjoy the recording I have included below of Yo Yo Ma in the Leningrad Hall performing as a part of the Tchaikovsky Gala in honor of his 150th anniversary!
It’s not a concerto, but it does feature a brilliant soloist with orchestra. Notice what an enormous range the cello has, from very low to as high as the violins. Rococo Variations was written at a stressful time, but it is a joyous piece.
Toward the middle of 1876, Tchaikovsky sank into one of his many depressions. His financial situation was precarious. The wealthy noblewoman Nadejda von Meck had not yet initiated the correspondence and patronage that were subsequently to allow him to devote himself to composition free of monetary concerns. His confidence in his own talent had been severely shaken by what he perceived as some career setbacks. The violent swings of his moods are reflected in the astonishing diversity of style in the music he wrote during this troubled period.
One of the most challenging works in the cello literature, the "Rococo" Variations, as this work has come to be known, is an analog to Tchaikovsky's later Mozartiana Suite in that it pays homage to Mozart, who was Tchaikovsky's musical idol.
Tchaikovsky composed the piece for Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, a cellist friend who taught at Moscow Conservatory. Fitzenhagen had a significant hand in the fine-tuning of the solo part. Yet his interest was a mixed blessing, for he exercised editorial jurisdiction over the orchestral parts and the order of the Variations as well as over cellistic details. Still, Fitzenhagen's championship of the Variations contributed greatly to Tchaikovsky's growing reputation abroad. After Fitzenhagen performed the Rococo Variations at the prestigious Wiesbaden Festival in 1879, he wrote to Tchaikovsky that Franz Liszt had exclaimed: "Here, at last, is music again."
The piece consists of a theme, seven variations and two cadenzas. The four-square theme is preceding by a wistful, "once upon a time" orchestral introduction before the cello declares the melody. Within individual variations Tchaikovsky adapts sonata principles, also drawing on the precedent of the Baroque through use of tripartite forms and rondo-styles. Each segment presents formidable challenges to the soloist, in several places exploiting the outermost range of the instrument.
While the Rococo Variations continue to strike awe -- and sometimes terror! -- into the hearts of cellists, their accessibility and transparent grace have made them a great favorite of audiences, and the next-best thing to a Tchaikovsky cello concerto.
The score calls for woodwinds and horns in pairs, solo violoncello, and strings.
-Program Notes by the Dallas Symphony