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Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Variations on a Rococo Theme for 'Cello and Orchestra (Original Version)

We have Wilhelm Fitzhagen, 'cellist in the premieres of Tchaikovsky's string quartets, to thank for commissioning the charming and graceful Rococo Variations, one of the composer's dalliances with past musical styles. Unfortunately, we also have Fitzhagen to thank for the ensuing acts of vandalism. 

In late 1876, Tchaikovsky produced a “short score” for Fitzhagen's consideration. They agreed some emendations to the solo part, and Fitzhagen performed it in this form late in 1877, while Tchaikovsky was abroad getting over his abortive marriage. Subsequently, Fitzhagen further altered his part, and substantially modified the whole. He also neglected to consult Tchaikovsky, in whose continuing absence he took his “edition” to the publisher Jurgenson, claiming the changes were “authorised”. Jurgenson, clearly unconvinced, wrote to Tchaikovsky, saying, “Loathsome Fitzhagen! He is determined to 'cello-ise your piece.” 

Uncredibly, Jurgenson nevertheless published Fitzhagen's “edition”. Tchaikovsky was not amused, noting several “errors”, and not particularly mollified by Fitzhagen's reports of favourable comment from Liszt. Worse followed. The full score published in 1889 also was Fitzhagen's “edition”! Tchaikovsky was furious, finally snorting (though this may have lost something in translation), “The devil take it. Let it stand as it is!” And so it did, for over fifty years. Tchaikovsky's original score is still rarely heard. 

Does it matter? Well, yes, it does. Unlike, say, Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, this is not a matter of “final” compared with “original” thoughts. In any “classical” piece, formal considerations are necessarily paramount and Fitzhagen, a blinkered virtuoso, has ignored and substantially damaged the structure (see table below). Basically, he repeated both halves of the theme, exchanged the Cadenza plus Variations 3 and 4 with Variation 7, and dropped Variation 8. I suspect this was an attempt to hog the limelight. Unlike Variation 3, in Variation 7 his harmonics are “challenged” by the violins. Placing the Cadenza and the two “showiest” variations later would suit someone mindful that his living depended on his reputation. That this left adjacent two similar variations was solved by omitting the “less impressive” number 8. The two cadenzas were simply left adjacent. 

There is also the matter of the woodwind linking tune, first heard at the end of the Theme. This Tchaikovsky developed at the ends of variations 1 to 3, within Variation 5, and recapitulated in its original form including answering strings at the end of Variation 6. Having thus underlined a key structural point, it retires. Fitzhagen moved this recapitulation to the end of Variation 2, nonsensically preceding most of its “developments”! 

Tchaikovsky, in Variations 1 and 2, establishes a pattern: each pair comprises a slower or more ornate variation and a livelier one. The work further divides into a pair of similarly structured halves. Thus the first half ends with the dynamic Variation 4, the second with Variation 8, less dynamic so that the coda is not upstaged. Variation 1's 'cello decorations are reflected by Variation 5's stately baroque. Cadenzas divide each half into two parts; in the second half the cadenza is neatly telescoped into Variation 6. Both cadenzas are followed by a lyrical adagio, the latter of which (nodding to Romantic tradition) has the “big tune”. 

This might seem a lot of dust-dry academic fuss, particularly as Fitzhagen's version has enjoyed popular success for so long. However, in my opinion, that is entirely due to the individual appeal of Tchaikovsky's “jigsaw puzzle bits”, whatever the batting order. Once completed, that puzzle reveals his skilfully crafted picture, a miraculous whole far exceeding the sum of its parts.

Addendum - Comparison of Order of Movements

Note that in the Fitzhagen version endings of movements have also been moved where these precede relocated variations, to maintain continuity with these subsequent variations. This continuity is indicated by ellipses.
 

Tchaikovsky's Original
Fitzhagen's Version (as commonly performed)
 
Revised Order of Original Movements
Revised Variation Numbers
Introduction Introduction  
Theme Theme  
Variation 1 Variation 1  
Variation 2 Variation 2, with ending from 6
(2)
Cadenza Variation 7
3
Variation 3 Variation 5
4
Variation 4 Variation 6, incorporating cadenza, with ending from 2 ...
5
Variation 5 ... Cadenza  
Variation 6 - incorporating Cadenza Variation 3
6
Variation 7 Variation 4
7
Variation 8 [Variation 8 out on its elbow]  
Coda Coda  

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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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