Among Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's many utterances on musical performance, our attention is drawn to his article on the concert of the outstanding Russian 'cellist, Professor of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire K. Yu. Davydov (1838—1889), which took place on March 17th, 1875. The article was published in the newspaper "Russian Review" ("Russkie Vedomosti"), dated March 25 of that year. In this article, Tchaikovsky stated that concerto literature for the 'cello "...has for many years not been enriched by any new compositions", and expressed serious misgivings about the fate of the 'cello as a solo, concerto instrument.
However, in the very next year (December of 1876) none other that Tchaikovsky himself refuted his misgivings by writing the significant "Rococo Variations" for 'cello and orchestra (opus 33)
In the above mentioned article Tchaikovsky wrote, "...(There is) needed in the cello's struggle for independent status a tremendous talent, and a combination of virtuosi qualities, in all their complexity, is needed in order to triumphantly engage the public's attention to the performer on stage with a 'cello in his hands. There are few notable 'cellists in our time, one thinks of two or three... and can go ho further. One of the exceptional virtuosos in the contemporary European stage is K. Yu. Davydov, in whose person we find a happy combination of artistic characteristics which places him at the head of present-day 'cellists... Davydov's playing is exceptional in its amazing precision, richness and beauty of tone, in its noble cantilena and its striking technical adroitness".
Tchaikovsky's remarks, which preceded the appearance of the "Rococo Variations", permit one the well-grounded supposition that during the writing of the. concert piece for 'cello and orchestra the great composer, in large measure, was still inspired by the fresh and clear impressions from the comparatively recent, artistic and masterful performance of Davydov, whom he valued highly as a musician and as a man.
The Rococo style current in eighteenth century European art was not characteristic of Russian art. Tchaikovsky, who, as is well known, was fond of eighteenth century music, particularly that of Mozart, composed, a "Rococo" theme in a clearly expressive Russian spirit — broad, singing and sincere, — traits characteristic of the whole work.
The masterfully written variations on this theme are built on the principle of artistic contrast. Each is a finished, artistic miniature; the episodes harmoniously replace one another, now serenely happy, now freely singing, now graceful, now heartily lyric or brilliantly virtuosic. Throughout, however, the unity of these episodes is preserved as well as the organic entirety of the whole work — this due to the oft repeated orchestral refrain.
In the masterfully and transparently orchestrated "Variations on a Rococo Theme" Tchaikovsky reveals a subtle understanding of the nature of the expressive possibilities of the 'cello. In this work are used both a broad, lyrical cantilena (variations III and VI of the present edition), and the rich, virtuosic technique of the instrument; yet one should note the melodic (and often thematic) feeling in the virtuoso variations.
Boris Asafiev (Igor Glebov), calling the "Variations" "...one of Tchaikovsky's remarkable, bright and most climactic works", wrote: "Here is heard the fascination of the composer's spirit happily encountering the world... and here virtuosity bows to simplicity, sincerity and poetry of sound"
Three editions of this work are known. The first is the original manuscript variation arranged by the composer for piano (cello and piano). The second variant appeared as the result of some editorial changes in the piano score (principally in the 'cello part) by Tchaikovsky's friend, the famous 'cellist and professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, V. F. Fitzenhagen . In this variant, the composer orchestrated his work. In the manuscript of the score the cello part excepting the first five measures of the first variation and six measures uf (he sixth variation (present edition) which were written by the composer himself, is written in Fitzenhagen's hand; his, too, are the pencilled notations on the autograph concerning new, more essential editorial changes which became a part of the first edition of the piano arrangement, published in October 1878 by the Moscow Jurgenson firm. The author's dedication was to the work's performer, Fitzenhagen (1848—1890). It is this third variant, published and repeatedly performed during the composer's life which for decades received many hearings on the world's concert stages, which is
reproduced in the present edition. It differs from the preceding variant, basically, in the order of variations and the exclusion of the eighth variation."
The score and orchestral parts were first publiched by P. I. Jurgenson in the same variant in November of 1889.
In 1954 the State Music Publishers issued the piano . arrangement of the "Variatons" edited by A. Stogorsky and taking for its basis the autograph score. In 1956 the "Variatons" were again published by the State Music Publishers as inclusions' in volumes 30b (score) and 55b (piano arrangement) of Tchaikovsky's complete works; V. Kubatsky prepared both volumes and used as a basis the autograph score and the piano arrangement which he restored in the original author's version.
Since Tchaikovsky, for the eleven years separating the issue of the piano.arrangement from that of the score, did not once question Fitzenhagen's last edition, and, since he was in Moscow while the engraving and correction of his "Variations" was going on and changed nothing in this edition, then that edition surely has the same right to performance as the preceding one.
The version proposed in the present edition has been repeatedly republished in our country; it also has been the basis for a number of foreign editions. It was in this version that the "Variations" received world-wide renown.
The beginning of the performance life of the "Variations on a Rococo Theme" was in the hands of Fitzenhagen who performed the work with an orchestra under Nikolai Rubinstein's direction in the Third Symphonic Meeting of the Moscow Department of the Russian Musical Society, November 18, 1877.
Fitzenhagen was also the first performer of Tchaikovsky's work abroad. He played it with success on June 8, 1879 at the musical festival in Weisbaden. Many famous musicians were present, among them Ferenz Liszt who highly appreciated the musical quality of the work.
On January 16, 1893, several months before his death, Tchaikovsky conducted his works in concert at the Odessa Department of the Russian Musical Society; the "Variations on a Rococo Theme" was performed by the Czech 'cellist V. F. Alojz (1860—1917) who had lived and worked for a number of years in Russia.
Later, great performers of the "Variations" were S. M. Kozolupov, L. B. Rostropovich, E. Ya. Belousov, I. I. Press, V. T. Podgorny and other 'cellists. Among the best contemporary interpreters of this immortal work of Tchaikovsky are Soviet 'cellists S. N. Knushevitsky, M. L. Rostropovich, D. p. Shafran and others. -
Among the "Variations" foreign performers there can be mentioned in this space H. Becker, J. Klengel, . E. Feuermann, G. Suggia, M. Marchal, A. Navarra, P. Fournier, G. Cassado, P. Tortelier, M. Sadlo, Z. Nelsova and others.