Variations "Rococo" - Transcription for Trumpet and Orchestra

Composed between December 1876 and March 1877, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme was the closest the composer ever came to writing a full concerto for cello and orchestra. They are of a concerto-virtuoso character, only occasionally supplemented by lyrical digressions. The Variations were composed for and with the assistance 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.

Although they appeared just before the tone poem Francesca da Rimini, in comparison with its intensity and fervor the Variations demonstrate a new, elegant attitude toward the classics. The work was inspired by Mozart and written after his model, showing how much Tchaikovsky liked the classical style. However, the variations are not truly ‘rococo’ in origin – rather, they are named so conventionally because of the graceful and serene nature that is characteristic of this style. Otherwise, Tchaikovsky’s original theme has a distinctly Russian spirit – it is broad, flamboyant and intimate, and contains rich possibilities for development. The masterfully written variations are built on the principle of artistic contrast. Each one of them is a complete musical miniature. The unity and integrity of the whole piece is fully preserved, which is enhanced by the repeated refrain of the orchestra.

Up to this point Tchaikovsky had relatively rarely written in variation form – the only exception being his piano piece in F major, Op. 19 No. 6, the idea of which he used in Rococo – the variations. The masterpiece he composed presents a theme with eight variations (according to Fitzhagen’s version, they are seven!) and is for a small orchestra, resembling the typical Rococo-era composition. It includes two instruments of each type: woodwinds, two French horns, and the usual string section, with no trumpets or percussion.

In a traditional concerto format, the composer could not have avoided some characteristic structural and dramatic problems arising from the style of the 18th century. He therefore opted for the easier solution: preserving the relative independence of each variation – its melodic outlines and harmonic support stated in the original theme. A possible problem with such an approach could be the lack of variety in the individual variations, which would effectively kill the work. Thanks to his ingenuity and consummate musicianship, however, Tchaikovsky avoided such a danger. There is hardly a phrase in any of the variations that is not explicitly linked to its original. And yet no two similar variations are written in the same manner. One of the things that contributed a lot to this is the little coda appended to the end of the theme, which in turn has a little extension appended to it. Tchaikovsky variated this extension in length and width, transforming the proportions of the individual variations at the same time and providing a smooth transition from one to the other. He even mixed material from this small coda with the theme itself in the Andante grazioso (variation No. 4 according to Fitzhagen’s version or No. 5 according to Tchaikovsky’s original version). The difficulty of the work is largely due to the fact that there are no large purely orchestral parts to allow the soloist to relax, at least for a little while, and the soloist faces the challenge of playing in the high register in a rather awkward position.

Variations on a theme of Rococo are a priceless gem of Russian classical music. The nobility of expression, simplicity and grace, together with the unfolding virtuosity, allow the soloist to fully demonstrate her performing skills. Thanks to this, the variations have become one of the most popular examples in the concert literature for cello and are happily included in the repertoire of all distinguished performers.

Tonight the Variations are performed in Mikhail Nakariakov’s arrangement for flugelhorn.

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