Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations

Infinitely charming and seemingly unable to age, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme is the closest he ever came to writing a full solo work (concerto) for cello and orchestra. Inspired by the elegance and grace of Mozart, the Variations show how brilliant Tchaikovsky could be when he turned his pen to the classical style…but rococo? Not so much!

Jonathan Craig Penner

Rococo was a period of art between the Baroque era and the Classical era. Rococo style is elegant and refreshing – Tchaikovsky wrote his own theme, it wasn’t Rococo after all!

The piece is made up of a brand new theme and eight variations. Tchaikovsky wrote an original theme in a style that meant Rococo to him; the orchestra creates the mood, the horn hands it off to the cello, and they all share the elegant theme repeated four times, allowing the cello to lead us into the variations…

The variations each show us something unique:

Var 1 – Tempo della Theme (same speed as the theme) is full of triplets, lively and graceful!

Var 2 – Tempo della Theme is a dialogue between orchestra and soloist and the statement of the theme has had its rhythms manipulated to make it feel much more lively and brazen, refusing to resolve.

Var 3 – Andante (at a walking speed) is sad. It’s melancholy restatement of the theme is the only time the composer gives us the the music in a minor key.

Var 4 – Allegro vivo (fast, full of life!) warms us up taking us from the previous D minor to sunny sensuous return A major. This is one of the most difficult passages in the piece for the soloist as its filled with constant fast note runs. It’s blazingly fast and ends with a graceful use of a rocket theme (the music literally goes up like a rocket!)

Var 5 – Andante grazioso (walking gracefully) is where Tchaikovsky moves the beat around on us. He’s mixing up where we feel the downbeat and gives us a stunning trill from the cello!

Var 6 – Andante takes that cello trill and hands the main theme off to the flute. When the soloist finally “falls” from the trill to a low E, the orchestra takes over with the joyous theme again. The soloist is given a cadenza (solo virtuosic phrase) that leads us into C major, something that feels so distant and foreign but comfortable all at once.

Var 7 – Andante sostenuto feel contemplative in the warmth of C major as it slowly winds its way toward E major – its Tchaikovsky giving us a hint that we’re heading home before long! There’s a meditative hopefulness here that seems to ask and answer a question, and E major gives us a perfect way to prepare for the return of the home key in…

Var 8 – e Coda: Allegro moderato con anima (Moderately fast with movement) has the cello gracefully bringing us home to A Major. It’s one big crescendo that leaps from fortissimo to piano only to be joined by the orchestra again. Joyful, full of light, buoyant, full of running scales to get us into the Coda that finally gives us the full drama that Tchaikovsky is so known for. This elegant journey comes to a glorious end…one that Mozart would have been proud of!

The SSO is thrilled to have Regina-born cellist Jonathan Craig Penner making his SSO debut with the Variations on a Rococo Theme as part of our Swan Lake concert February 26th.

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