The Kennedy Center

Rococo Variations

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Peter Laki

Variations on a Rococo Theme, op. 33
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Long before neo-classicism became a fashionable trend in the music of the 1920s, some composers had already discovered the lure of bygone ages and explored the ways in which styles from the past could be brought into line with their own artistic personalities. Tchaikovsky, a Romantic composer to the core, was among those who were deeply moved by 18th-century music, with represented to them an ideal if distant world for which they felt great nostalgia.

After completing his orchestral fantasy Francesca da Rimini (1876), Tchaikovsky needed a break from the fatal passions and the horrors of Dante's Inferno. He turned (or, we might say, escaped) to the past, put on an imaginary powdered wig, and embarked on a composition that was clearly 18th-century in its inspiration. The new piece was intended for Tchaikovsky's colleague on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen.

The title requires a little commentary. The 19th century was fond of drawing parallels between the arts, and the concept of "Rococo" music enjoyed a certain currency. Originally, the term "rococo" was used to refer to a style of architectural decoration in France. Winsome and elegant arabesques, sometimes with a touch of frivolity, were the main characteristics of this style. Rococo influences in 18th-century music were sought and therefore found (anywhere from Couperin to Mozart), but since the term "rococo" so often had a pejorative overtone in art criticism, musicians have been using it less and less.

When Tchaikovsky called his op. 33 "Variations on a Rococo Theme," he meant little more than some diversion (or, to use the Italian cognate so important in 18th-century music: divertimento). The orchestra is reduced to 18th-century dimensions, and the theme for the variation hints at that era, although it is really not a typical 18th-century melody. It is, instead, exactly what Tchaikovsky wanted it to be: a nostalgic look at the past from a hundred years later.

The work opens with a short orchestral introduction followed by the first presentation of the theme. Before and between the variations, we hear some transition passages with harmonic progressions that definitely belong to the year 1876. Each of these transition passages closes on the dominant -- that is, with the equivalent of a musical question mark -- after which the new variation arrives like an answer.

Some of the variations make use of the cello's ability to sing long lyrical melodies, while others are extremely virtuosic in character. On several occasions, the cello launches into grandiose cadenzas. There is no shortage of spectacular trills and double stops, yet those bravura devices never obscure the ingratiating main melody.

The version in which the Rococo Variations have become famous is not the original one: Fitzenhagen completely rearranged the order of the variations, and even cut one that Tchaikovsky had written, despite the composer's vehement protests. Although the original version has now been published in Russia, it has never caught on with cellists, who continue to play the work in the form they grew up with.

--Peter Laki