Program notes: The Lighter Side of Tchaikovsky and Schubert

Tuesday, July 26, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33

Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485

Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Composed: 1876
Length: c. 20 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, strings, and solo cello

Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations draws inspiration from music of an earlier era. The term “rococo” signifies a style of 18th-century art and architecture typified by elegance and graceful ornamentation. Carrying the term over to music from the same period was natural, but imprecise. In music, the rococo style is generally exemplified by those pieces existing in the seams of the Baroque and Classical eras. The refined clarity of Rameau and Couperin are good examples of the style, and early Mozart, with its lilt and grace, also falls into this category.

Tchaikovsky idolized Mozart, going so far as to claim that Mozart was the reason he chose to devote his life to music. When his longtime correspondent and patron Nadezhda von Meck expressed surprise at Tchaikovsky’s devotion to Mozart’s music, with its measured elegance that seemed to stand in stark contrast to Tchaikovsky’s Romantic sensibility, Tchaikovsky wrote:

You say my worship for [Mozart] is quite contrary to my musical nature. But perhaps it is just because—being a child of my time—I feel broken and spiritually out of joint, that I find consolation and rest in the music of Mozart wherein he gives expression to that joy of life which was part of his sane and wholesome temperament, not yet undermined by reflection.

Indeed, 1876 marked the beginning of a downward spiral for Tchaikovsky, with fits of severe depression and illness that culminated in a complete mental breakdown just months after he married, against his better judgment, in 1877. The sparkling Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra, written in December 1876, was a retreat into a world that brought Tchaikovsky comfort, an active form of artistic escapism that unfortunately could not stave off the crisis that was to come.

What to listen for

After the main theme is played, there are seven highly contrasting variations with wide degrees of adherence to the original theme. Don’t miss the sixth variation, which offers a melancholy, minor key version of the theme with pizzicato (plucked string) accompaniment.

Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Composed: 1816
Length: c. 30 minutes

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

Like the Tchaikovsky, Schubert’s Fifth Symphony stands as a musical totem to the influence of Mozart over the span of the long 19th century. By the time Schubert composed his Symphony No. 5 at age 19, Mozart was a distant (although vivid) memory, and Beethoven had already completed and premiered all but the last of his nine iconic works. How could Schubert both honor the Germanic tradition and find his own voice in the genre? Some might argue that this did not truly coalesce until his later symphonies, especially the “Unfinished” (No. 8) and “The Great” (No. 9). However, the earlier pieces, especially the delightful Symphony No. 5, laid the groundwork for the later innovations. Schubert was always the master melodist, evident even in the earliest of his works. But his harmonic voice, which became arguably the most sophisticated of all the Viennese masters, developed over time. In his Symphony No. 5, we see hints at the tonal innovations to come, and we also find Schubert exploring new territory structurally.

During Schubert’s short life, none of his nine symphonies were ever performed publicly. However, all were played at some point for Schubert to hear, either by the student orchestra he was a part of at the Imperial and Royal City College in Vienna or later at intimate gatherings at private residences, which grew out of chamber music evenings with the Schubert family string quartet. Symphony No. 5 was first played at one of these salon concerts, at the apartment of musician Otto Hatwig, not long after its composition. Schubert’s orchestra was necessarily modest in size—he omits trumpets, clarinets, and percussion—and Hatwig’s string section was limited to 21 players (including Hatwig as concertmaster and Schubert himself on viola). The piece did not see its first public performance until 1841.

What to listen for

  • First movement: at the end of the first section (exposition) of this convivial music, Schubert introduces a very unexpected shift, which allows him to flip fluidly between major and minor keys in a way that is just beyond what Mozart might have done.
  • Second movement: this is an entrancing, slow movement with subtle harmonic twists. Listen for a particularly surprising one towards the end—just as the movement seems to be over, Schubert hits us with an oddly out-of-place chord that takes the movement another minute to work through.
  • Third movement: the Minuet is surprisingly hard-driving, modeled on the stormy minuet movement from Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.
  • Fourth movement: the finale scurries along to the fleet-footed feel of Rossini (with a touch of Mozart’s Figaro mixed in).

Program notes by Jon Kochavi