Variations on a Rococo Theme

The Variations on a Rococo Theme in A major, Opus 33 (TH 57 ; ČW 59), was Tchaikovsky's first composition for cello and orchestra, written between December 1876 and January 1877 [O.S.].

For many years the Variations were known only in a version heavily edited by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, to whom the work was dedicated. Tchaikovsky's original version was reconstructed and published for the first time in the 1950s.


The work is scored for solo cello with an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in A), 2 bassoons + 2 horns (in F) + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Movements and Duration

Tchaikovsky's original score comprised a theme with eight variations, but Fitzenhagen's version omits one variation and changes the sequence of the remainder:

Tchaikovsky's original version:
Thema. Moderato assai quasi Andante–Moderato semplice (45 bars)
Var. I. Tempo della Thema (24 bars)
Var. II. Tempo della Thema (37 bars)
Var. III. Andante (34 bars)
Var. IV. Allegro vivo (46 bars)
Var. V. Andante grazioso (58 bars)
Var. VI. Allegro moderato (46 bars)
Var. VII. Andante sostenuto (70 bars)
Var. VIII e Coda. Allegro moderato con anima (67 bars)
Fitzenhagen's revised version:
Thema. Moderato assai quasi Andante–Moderato semplice (61 bars)
Var. I. Tempo della Thema (24 bars)
Var. II. Tempo della Thema (33 bars)
Var. III. Andante sostenuto (70 bars)
Var. IV. Andante grazioso (58 bars)
Var. V. Allegro moderato (50 bars)
Var. VI. Andante (35 bars)
Var. VII e Coda. Allegro vivo (76 bars)

Additional repeats in Fitzenhagen's score mean that both versions last approximately 20 minutes in performance.


On 15/27 December 1876 the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky: "I'm writing variations for cello solo with orchestra" [1]. Tchaikovsky declined an invitation from his sister, Aleksandra Davydova, to spend Christmas with her family at Kamenka, on the grounds that he "had accumulated a great deal of work, some of which are paid commissions, that should be very straightforward to finish during the forthcoming holidays" [2]. Tchaikovsky did not manage to realise this ambition: "Many people keep dropping in here unexpectedly—it seems that everyone in Petersburg is holding me back, when I had stupidly imagined that it would be possible to take advantage of the holidays to work" [3]. Throughout his letters of January 1877, the composer mentioned that he still had "a great deal" to do [4]. It is not possible to ascertain exactly what Tchaikovsky wrote during the first months of 1877. It is only known that in February–April he composed the Valse-Scherzo for violin, and in March–April he wrote his Fourth Symphony, and during this same period he completed some work commissioned by Nadezhda von Meck.

An examination of the manuscript sources of the Variations suggests that after completing the sketches, Tchaikovsky first made an arrangement for cello and piano, which he gave for checking to the cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. Fitzenhagen made some changes, mainly to the cello part, inserting them on Tchaikovsky's manuscript, and pasting over parts of the original autograph. The full score is written wholly in the composer's hand, except for a large section of the cello part (from bar six of the first variation up to the end of the fourth, and from bar seven of the fifth variation up to the end of the work), which was written by Fitzenhagen. It would therefore appear that Tchaikovsky orchestrated the work from the piano arrangement as amended by Fitzenhagen.


As noted above, Tchaikovsky's arrangement of the work for cello and piano was made in December 1876 or January 1877, and pre-dates the full score. The version eventually published by Jurgenson was drastically modified by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen.


On 18/30 November 1877, the first performance of the Variations on a Rococo Theme took place at the third symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein. Nadezhda von Meck reported on this to Tchaikovsky: "At today's symphony concert, Fitzenhagen is playing your Variations" [5]. Press comment was very favourable. Tchaikovsky missed the performance of the Variations, as he was abroad at the time.

Outside Russia, the Variations were performed for the first time at the Wiesbaden Music Festival on 27 May/8 June 1879, also by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. On 1/13 June, Fitzenhagen wrote to Tchaikovsky: "It gives me great pleasure to be able to report to you that I performed your Variations to a tremendous furore! I pleased them so much that I was called back three times, and even while performing the piece, there was a storm of applause after the Andante (D minor). Liszt told me: 'You played magnificently. This is truly music!', and it is a tremendous compliment that such a thing could be said by Liszt" [6].

Other notable early performances included:

  • New York, Chickering Hall, 28 November 1888, Victor Herbert (cello), conducted by Frank Van der Stucken.
  • Tiflis, 1st RMS symphony concert, 6 April 1891, Ivan Saradzhev (cello), conducted by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov.
  • Odessa, 1st RMS symphony concert, 16 January 1893, Wladyslaw Alois (cello), conducted by Tchaikovsky.
  • London, Philharmonic Society concert, 17 June 1897, Leo Stern (cello), conducted by Alexander Mackenzie.

Tchaikovsky's original version of the Variations was performed for the first time on 24 April 1941 in Moscow, played by Danyl Shafran, conducted by Aleksandr Melik-Pashayev, and subsequently by Sergey Shirinsky.


At the sugestion of Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, Tchaikovsky gave this composition, together with the Valse-Scherzo for violin, to the Berlin publishers Luckhardt [7]. It is not known when the manuscripts were sent, but it could not have been later than the early summer of 1877, since in August that year Iosif Kotek asked Tchaikovsky whether the Valse had been printed yet.

However, publication of the Variations was delayed, and early in 1878 Tchaikovsky asked Iosif Kotek to retrieve the manuscript from Luckhardt, and deliver it to his principal publisher Pyotr Jurgenson [8]. In March 1878, Jurgenson began engraving the Variations, but it seems that this work was held up by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who took it upon himself to edit the work, on the pretext of making further improvements to the cello part, without consulting the composer.

Pyotr Jurgenson protested against this, and in a letter to Tchaikovsky of 3/15 February 1878 he wrote: "Loathsome Fitzenhagen! He is most insistent on making changes to your cello piece, and he says that you have given him full authority to do so. Heavens! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé parFitzenhagen!!!" [9].

Tchaikovsky did not prevent Wilhelm Fitzenhagen from making changes, although Anatoly Brandukov recalled that the composer viewed them unfavourably:

"On one of my visits to Pyotr Ilyich [in 1889] I found him very upset, looking as though he was ill. When I asked: "What's the matter with you?" — Pyotr Ilyich, pointing to the writing desk, said: "Fitzenhagen's been here. Look what he's done with my composition — everything's been changed!". When I asked what action he was going to take concerning this composition, Pyotr Ilyich replied: "The Devil take it! Let it stand as it is" [10].

In October or November 1878 the arrangement for cello and piano appeared in print in Fitzenhagen's new version, which was quite unlike Tchaikovsky's original [11]. The editor completely changed the sequence of variations and altered their structures (not to mention all the changes to the cello part), and excised the whole of the original eighth variation. According to Izrail Yampolsky:

Fitzenhagen not only violated the sequence of the variations, but one of them (the eighth and last) was omitted completely. In this form, Fitzenhagen's version of the Variations on a Rococo Theme comprised an introduction, theme and seven variations. Tchaikovsky's third variation (the D-minor Andante) came sixth in Fitzenhagen's version, and the cadenza which preceded it was transferred accordingly. Tchaikovsky's seventh variation (the C major Andante) was moved to third place by Fitzenhagen. The fourth variation (Allegro vivo) was used by Fitzenhagen to conclude the work. With the cuts, inserted passages and tempo changes in Fitzenhagen's work, this could be called a distortion of the careful and clear construction of the former Variations" [12].

The full score (45 pages, plate 13791) and orchestral parts (plate 13792) of the Variations on a Rococo Theme were published in November 1889 by Pyotr Jurgenson, in Wilhelm Fitzenhagen's version.

In the mid-20th century, the author's original text of the Variations was completely reconstructed, and published in 1956 in volume 30Б (full score) and volume 55 (cello-piano arrangement) of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works under the editorship of Viktor Kubatsky [13].


Tchaikovsky's manuscript full score is preserved in the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 96) [view]. The cello part from bar 6 of Variation I to the end of Variation IV, and from bar 7 of Variation V to the end, is written by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who also made a number of annotations connected with his re-ordering of the variations.

The same archive also holds the autograph of Tchaikovsky's original arrangement of the work for cello and piano (ф. 88, No. 342) [view], with revisions by Fitzenhagen, and a later manuscript copy with the cello part entirely in Fitzenhagen's hand (ф. 88, No. 97), corresponding to the full score as published in 1889.


See: Discography

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Letter 522 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 15/27 December 1876.
  2. Letter 523 to Aleksandra Davydova and Lev Davydov, 18/30 December 1876.
  3. Letter 526 to Aleksandra Davydova, 23 December 1876/4 January 1877.
  4. See Letter 536 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 12/24 January 1877, and Letter 543 to Aleksandra Davydova, 22 February/6 March 1877.
  5. Letter from Nadezhda von Meck to Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1877 — Klin House-Museum Archive.
  6. Letter from Wilhelm Fitzenhagen to Tchaikovsky, 8/20 June 1879.
  7. See Letter 677 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 5/17 December 1877. In his article The history of Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme" and the collaboration with Fitzenhagen (2019), Sergei Istomin ascertained that the publisher in question was actually Friedrich Luckhardt of Berlin, rather than the similarly-named Franz Ernst Christophe Leuckart in Leipzig, as had previously been believed: "It seems that Tchaikovsky himself had started the confusion about the name: in his letters, as well as in all musicological and biographical works about the composer, we find different varieties of the German publisher's name such as Leukhardt, Lukhardt, Leuckardt".
  8. See letters 739, 772 and 800 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 24 January/5 February, 27 February/11 March, 27 March/8 April 1878, and Letter 798 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 March/5 April 1878.
  9. Letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to Tchaikovsky, 3/15 February 1878.
  10. Quoted in Творчество Петра Ильича Чайковского в материалах и документах (1958), p. 472.
  11. See letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to Tchaikovsky, 16/28 November 1878.
  12. Izrail Yampolsky, Неопубликованные рукописи Вариаций на тему рококо Чайковского (1945). See also Boris Dobrokhotov, Нотографические заметки. Вариаций на тему рококо (1955).
  13. Previously, in 1954, the Variations had been issued by Muzgiz in an arrangement for cello and piano and full score, edited by Aleksandr Stogorsky (1910–1987). In this edition Wilhelm Fitzenhagen's cello part was used with careful corrections by the editor; in places there are minor differences from the text of the collected works, which was based on the original autographs and other sources.