By Aaron Grad
When Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) composed the Variations on a Rococo Theme in December of 1876, he was still stinging from a failed opera production in Saint Petersburg and a particularly nasty review in Vienna. Prone to insecurity even at the best of times, Tchaikovsky began second-guessing what he had written in his new work for cello and orchestra, and he asked for advice from the intended soloist, Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a 28-year-old German cellist who had been recruited to teach alongside Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory.
Fitzenhagen, who also dabbled in composition, showed some real chutzpah in how far he took his “corrections” to Tchaikovsky’s score, which involved a re-ordering of the variations (with one removed entirely) along with heavy rewrites in the solo part. Tchaikovsky accepted the changes, and the hybridized version entered the popular canon thanks to Fitzenhagen’s numerous concert appearances and an 1889 publication. Modern scholarship and X-ray technology made it possible to decipher Tchaikovsky’s original music under Fitzenhagen’s changes, but the old version beloved by generations of performers and audiences is still the sentimental favorite, and it remains the edition used in most performances today, whether with orchestra or using the piano accompaniment that Tchaikovsky prepared himself.
Tchaikovsky’s title is a bit misleading, since his “Rococo theme” is really his own original invention, and it has more do to with Mozart and the Classical period than the ornate Rococo style from the earlier era of Louis XIV. Following a stately introduction, the cello introduces the light-stepping theme, balanced in two repeated sections. The first two variations maintain the theme’s flavor and pulse, until the third variation breaks away to a gentle, singing melody. The virtuosic fourth and fifth variations culminate in a cadenza, preparing the minor-key sixth variation that trails off in ethereal harmonics. Following the work’s only pause, the final variation enters with a throbbing intensity that builds through quick call-and-response phrases and breathless figurations.
During a concert tour in 1796, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) visited Berlin to play for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. The king was an avid cellist, and Beethoven delighted him by writing two sonatas to perform with the royal court’s principal cellist, the French virtuoso Jean-Louis Duport. A Vienna publisher printed the two sonatas the next year as Beethoven’s Opus 5, advertising them as “two grand sonatas for harpsichord or piano, with an obbligatocello.”
The mood of the Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 5, No. 2) is preordained by its key setting, starting with old-fashioned dotted rhythms that invoke an air of solemn nobility. The fast body of the first movement arrives with deceptively simple music, until a sudden forte and triplets in the piano reveal the true intensity of the new tempo. The concluding Rondo offsets the heaviness by centering its cyclical form on flirty themes in G-major.
The Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) spent his most productive years in the United States. Around the time he first moved to New York, in 1916, he became fascinated with expressing his Jewish faith and identity in music. Works from that period remain his most popular, including Three Jewish Poems, Israel, and above all Schelomo for cello and orchestra.
A related work that Bloch composed for violin and piano in 1923, Baal Shem, takes its title from a Hebrew term that means “Master of the Name,” referring to certain rabbis practiced in the Kabbalistic art of healing using God’s names. Bloch was especially fascinated by the 18th-century Polish rabbi known as Baal Shem Tov, who is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism, and this score bears the subtitle “Three Pictures of Hassidic Life.” The middle movement in particular has become a fixture of concert programs, whether in Bloch’s original setting for violin (with piano or orchestra), or in transcriptions like this one for cello. Nigun refers to a type of vocal improvisation that is a fixture of devotional singing in Hasidic worship.
The British composer Judith Weir (b. 1954), beloved at home and abroad for her operas and large works for orchestras and voices, earned the honor of becoming the first woman named Master of the Queen’s Music in the 400-year-history of that royal role. She wrote the following program note for Unlocked, composed in 1999 for Ulrich Heinen, the principal cellist of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Unlocked arises out of my interest in the magnificent collection of American folksongs in the Library of Congress, Washington, collected by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. A significant proportion of the songs were collected from prisoners—mostly black prisoners in Southern jails. The piece is made up of freely composed cello fantasias inspired by five of these songs:
No. 1 (Make Me a Garment) is based on a song sung by a prisoner in Florida who was found by the Lomaxes in the tuberculosis ward and could only whisper his song.
No. 2 (No Justice) is a set of variations, using extended playing techniques, growing out of a simple prison song from Georgia (titled “Oh we don’t get no justice in Atlanta”).
No. 3 (The Wind Blow East) comes from fragments of a chorus heard in the Bahamas. It represents the prisoner’s dream of a better life.
No. 4 (The Keys to the Prison) is based on an original song sung by a 15-year old (Cajun) girl in French. In the song, a boy in prison sings to his mother, “Hey mom, I’ve got the keys to the prison and I’m going to escape.” She says, “How come, when the warders have the keys hanging round their necks?” And so it goes on. The music composed around it is very fast and agile, and for me represents the prisoner’s fantasy that the prison doors are suddenly wide open, and the guards have all gone.
No. 5 (Trouble, Trouble) is a transcription/arrangement of a blues sung by a prisoner in Alabama.
© 2021 Aaron Grad.
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