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Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Variations on a Rococo Theme for 'Cello and Orchestra (“Fitzhagen Edition”)

Incredibly, Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, perhaps the most charming, graceful and popular of all works for ’cello and orchestra, is virtually unknown. Daft, but true: the work you will hear is not Tchaikovsky’s - well, not entirely. Confused? Let me explain.

We have Wilhelm Fitzhagen, ’cellist in the premières of Tchaikovsky's string quartets, to thank for commissioning the Rococo Variations, one of the composer's sympathetic dalliances with past musical styles. Unfortunately, that’s not all we have to thank Fitzhagen (a little ungrammatically) for.

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

Uncredibly, Jurgenson nevertheless published Fitzhagen's “edition”. Tchaikovsky, noting numerous “errors”, was neither amused nor perceptibly mollified by Fitzhagen's reports of favourable comment from Liszt. Bizarrely, the full score published in 1889 was also Fitzhagen's “edition”! This time, Tchaikovsky was livid, finally snorting, “The devil take it. Let it stand as it is!” (this may have lost something in translation). And so it stood, for over fifty years. Even today Tchaikovsky's original score is - for some inexplicable reason - still rarely heard.

So what were Fitzhagen’s sins? First, what did Tchaikovsky write? His layout, 

Intro. - Theme - v1 - v2 - cadenza - v3 - v4 - v5 - v6 (inc. cadenza) - v7 - v8 - Coda

formed a nest of interlocked patterns. The parallel halves incorporate pairs of balanced slower/livelier variations. Cadenzas subdivide each half, each cadenza introducing a lyrical adagio, the latter of which (nodding to Romantic tradition) furnished the climactic “big tune”. The subsidiary tune linking Theme and v1 was progressively developed, its reprise following v6 providing an important structural beacon.

Fitzhagen’s ’cello-isation was purely to maximise his own exposure. He repeated both halves of the Theme and shovelled around variations and endings. Then, finding that he’d juxtaposed two similar variations, and the cadenzas, he omitted the “less impressive” v8 and simply left the cadenzas adjacent. Preposterously, the linking tune’s reprise now preceded its developments!

Does it matter? Yes. Unlike, say, Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, this isn’t a matter of “final” versus “original” thoughts. Tchaikovsky apparently intended his work as an affectionate tribute to the pure art of Mozart, a composer he idolised. So, quite properly for a classical work, he made formality a paramount consideration. Fitzhagen’s gratuitous shuffling obviously ignored this (see the table below for a comparison of the two “versions”). 

Nevertheless, the very popularity of Fitzhagen’s corrupt edition demonstrates a high “residual value”. Fortunately (unfortunately?) the dazzling invention invested in the individual variations, admittedly allied to largely enforced ignorance of the original, effectively (and ironically) blinded audiences to Fitzhagen’s vandalism. That the music not only survived such hacking, but actually flourished in spite of it, speaks volumes for Tchaikovsky’s genius. Try the original and decide for yourself, but for now just marvel at this “mere” miracle of music.

Introduction and Theme: Clipped phrases hint at the theme. Pizzicato strings and a brief horn cadenza preface the soloist’s exposition of the theme - a sprightly, slightly prim “drawing-room march”. A subsidiary tune, passing from woodwind to strings to ’cello, bridges to . . .

Variation 1: The soloist immediately launches a highly decorative elaboration, accompanied by the theme in the violins. The bridging tune returns . . .

Variation 2: The soloist’s free-running chains of shortened phrases are echoed by the orchestra. A variation of the bridging tune is drawn out by the soloist.

Variation 3: The “big tune”, as romantic as a candle-lit dinner for two. Tchaikovsky’s lyric genius transforms his (comparatively) dowdy caterpillar into a gorgeous butterfly while we mere mortals can only gape in wonderment. Strings take up the bridging tune, passing it to woodwind and ’cello - and thence into the stratosphere. 

Variation 4: Now lilting, the theme acquires little tenuto cherries atop its icing. Having descended basement-wards, it emerges in agile acrobatics on a perky ’cello, the bridging tune being drawn in.

Variation 5 (including cadenza): Haloed by fanciful trills from the soloist, a flute plays the theme straight. Fulsome strings interject, while the soloist contributes a brief cadenza. A further variant of the bridging tune leads to . . .

Cadenza: A (dare I say?) predictable showcase of precipitous runs, trills, double-stopping, poised pizzicati, and some of the ’cello’s hallmark throbbing passion. 

Variation 6: Over pizzicato strings the soloist, answered by woodwind, sings a lovely, leisurely variation. The bridging tune, appropriately soulful, ebbs away over a tenuto ’cello, which finally ascends to somewhere beyond the stratosphere.

Variation 7 and Coda: Chuntering bass strings provoke a runaway chitter-chatter of soloist and treble strings, with some really neat woodwind counterpoint. The music seamlessly spills into the coda, racing off to a thoroughly bracing conclusion.

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
Cadenza Variation 7
Variation 3 Variation 5
Variation 4 Variation 6, incorporating cadenza, with ending from 2 ...
Variation 5 ... Cadenza  
Variation 6 - incorporating Cadenza Variation 3
Variation 7 Variation 4
Variation 8 [Variation 8 out on its elbow]  
Coda Coda  


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


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