1876 was not the most successful year in Tchaikovsky's career. He had spent ten years teaching at the Conservatory in Moscow, after completing his own studies at the comparable institution in St. Petersburg. His first three symphonies and first piano concerto had been completed and performed, and he enjoyed already a considerable reputation at home and abroad. Nevertheless his Romeo and Juliet had been hissed by an audience in Vienna, where the critic Eduard Hanslick had expressed an unfavourable opinion, as later he did of the violin concerto. At the same time the opera Vakula the Smith had not proved a popular success. Tchaikovsky's own health was uncertain, while social pressures were leading him into the disastrous contemplation of marriage, as an answer to problems posed by his own homosexuality.
The autumn brought the composition of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini, a drama of forbidden love based on an episode in Dante's Inferno, but this was followed, towards the end of the year, by a very different work, the Variations on a Rococo Theme, presumably commissioned by his Conservatory colleague, the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. The work, couched largely in the composer's own idiom, expresses his admiration for Mozart and is modestly scored for an eighteenth century orchestra, with pairs of woodwind instruments, horns and the usual complement of strings.
The Variations, to the composer's dismay, were revised and re-ordered by Fitzenhagen, although in the end he allowed the revision to stand. A brief introduction is followed by the solo cello statement of the theme. The first variation is in triplet rhythm, while the soloist shares the second variation with the orchestra. The third variation, marked Andante sostenuto, changes the mood and key, restored in the fourth Andante grazioso variation. In the fifth the cello enjoys a more decorative role, while the flute maintains the theme. A cadenza leads to the sixth variation, in D minor, and the seventh, with its opportunities for technical brilliance.
Fitzenhagen had been the cellist in the first performances of Tchaikovsky's three string quartets, the first of which was composed and performed for the first time in March 1871. He seems to have arranged the slow movement for cello and string orchestra at about the time he was working on the Pezzo capriccioso and the transcription of the Nocturne from Six morceaux, Opus 19, of 1873, for piano, for cello and small orchestra. The cause of this particular activity seems to have been his association during a visit to Paris with the young Russian cellist Anatoly Brandukov, a pupil of Fitzenhagen, whom Tchaikovsky found very charming. He dedicated to him the >Pezzo capriccioso, and Brandukov gave the first Russian performance of the work, not, as its title might imply, a scherzo, but music of a more romantic cast, in Moscow on 7th December 1889.
Max Bruch, two years older than Tchaikovsky, outlived him by more than a quarter of a century. Born in Cologne in 1838, he enjoyed a career as a conductor that took him as far afield as Liverpool and as a composer of choral music that enjoyed contemporary popularity. He is chiefly remembered in modern international repertoire for his G minor Violin Concerto, which is widely known, and by his Scottish Fantasia, also for solo violin and orchestra. Kol Nidrei is probably the best known of the shorter instrumental pieces Bruch wrote. It is an Adagio on Hebrew themes, published in 1881 in Berlin, where ten years later the composer was appointed professor at the Academy, with responsibility for the composition master-class. The title, which means "All the vows", is taken from a prayer used on the Day of Atonement.
Hebraic Rhapsody, Schelomo (Solomon), was completed in 1916 and has an even closer affinity with music familiar from the synagogue, with which Bruch had only a second-hand acquaintance. Born in Geneva, Bloch moved to the United States of America in 1916 and was to establish himself there as above all a Jewish composer, although his music is by no means limited to this mode of composition, exploring as it does a more varied melodic and harmonic language than this might imply.
ReviewsThe Rococo Variations are given a stylish performance by Maria Kliegel - Gramophone