Concert Notes: Rococo Cello

MCO’s Rococo Cello can be heard in Melbourne on Thursday 02 March at The Deakin Edge, Federation Square & Sunday 05 March at Melbourne Recital Centre.

Rococo Cello

The term Rococo refers the eighteenth century movement in the arts originating in France, developing first in the decorative arts, interior design and architecture. The style came to encompass painting, sculpture, literature, theatre and music. In music the style is often referred to as style gallant and is characterised by elegance and refinement. The Rococo was a period of ‘transition’ from the Baroque to Classicism.


Idomeneo, re di Creta K366: Overture
Idomeneo Ballet Music K367: Chaconne—Pas seul de Mr Le Grand

By the time the 25-year old Mozart finished Idomeneo, he had already written around a dozen dramatic works for voice and orchestra. It is considered to be Mozart’s first mature opera, and demonstrates Mozart inhabiting the developing French and Italian operatic traditions of the time.

Mozart received the commission for the three-act opera in the summer of 1780 and it premiered in Munich in January 1781. The work recounts the story of the Cretan King, Idomeneo, and his return from the Trojan Wars. During a storm he makes a promise to Neptune to sacrifice the first person he sees—it turns out to be his son. The opera is packed with emotion and includes a monster-slaying, a compromise, an abdication and a happy ending.

The overture is in a modified sonata movement in which the central development section is a mere transition between the exposition and the recapitulation. It is a bold movement exploring both majesty and suffering.

At the time, ballet music was obligatory in an opera. Although Mozart complained in a letter to his father about writing the ballet music—referring to “those cursed dances”—he produced a joyous and colourful collection of dances to conclude the opera.

The ballet comprises five movements. According to leading Idomeneo scholar Daniel Heartz, it is likely that only the two movements MCO is performing in this concert were used in the premiere. For the ballet, dance solos and pas de deux are interspersed with sections for all the dancers and the names of the original solo dancers are recorded on Mozart’s autograph.

The theme for the opening Chaconne is borrowed from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. The chaconne is powerful, grand and dignified, displaying contrasting moods, and, typically, organised around a repeated bass line. Mozart treats the movement as an extended rondo. This chaconne is one of Mozart’s longest continuous instrumental compositions and is in three sections: Allegro, Larghetto, Allegro. The Chaconne proceeds straight into the solo dance for Monsieur Le Grand, before ending with a spectacular dance for the entire corps.


CPE Bach
Cello Concerto in A major, Wq172 /H439

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) was the second surviving son of JS Bach and his first wife Maria Barbara. He was an important and influential composer of the second half of the eighteenth century, composing more than 1000 works including songs, oratorios, keyboard dance movements and sonatas, concertos and symphonies. In his time, CPE Bach was a more prominent figure than his father, at the forefront of the developing musical tastes of the era.

CPE Bach wrote three cello concertos in the early 1750s that were transcriptions of works originally written for harpsichord and strings, and later for flute and orchestra. The outer movements are in a ritornello form where the main ideas return with contrasting episodes. The opening Allegro is filled with excitement as the interplay between the orchestra and the soloist develops. The Largo is an extended lament that explores many of the expressive possibilities of the cello. The Allegro assai is filled with energy and drive with the soloist elaborating on the ritornello materials throughout the movement.


Symphony No 88 in G major Letter V Hob I/88

Like Mozart, Haydn (1732–1809) composed in a period of transition between court patronage and the rising importance of the public concert and music publication. Music that was once the preserve of a tiny elite was finding a much larger audience, and creating entrepreneurial opportunities for gifted composers.

In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract with his employer, the Esterházy family, so that he could sell his work to publishers. Emerging from the relative provincial obscurity of the Esterháza palace in Hungary, Haydn’s music began to be widely known across Europe. Preceding the writing of Symphony No 88, Haydn had written six symphonies to fulfil a commission from an orchestra in Paris.

He completed Symphony No 88 in 1787 and it was likely premiered at Esterháza. The music was published in Paris and Vienna shortly after. When it was performed in London in 1789 it created great enthusiasm for Haydn’s future visit.

The symphony is scored for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, continuo and strings. The symphony opens with a slow introduction that leads to a brilliant first movement with a great sense of energy and drive. The central part of the movement is marked by an increase in complexity and drama before the return of the opening theme. The main theme of the Largo movement is introduced by the oboe and later taken by other instruments with dramatic punctuations from the full orchestra. The Menuetto is stately and measured and the main theme of the trio is presented over a drone accentuating the folk qualities of the dance. The Finale, which continues the fun folk-like qualities of the previous movement, is marked with brilliant contrapuntal writing.

The designation Letter V is not a nickname, as with so many of Haydn’s symphonies, but a reminiscence of an older method of cataloguing Haydn’s work.


Variations on a Rococo Theme Op 33

Variations on a Rococo Theme Op 33 for cello and orchestra by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) was originally written as an introduction, theme and eight variations. It was composed between December 1876 and March 1877 for the German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen who was Tchaikovsky’s colleague at the Moscow Conservatoire. Fitzenhagen premiered the work in Moscow in November 1877, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting.

Tchaikovsky had asked Fitzenhagen for his advice on the solo cello part. In response, Fitzenhagen made wholesale changes to Tchaikovsky’s solo cello line, and re-ordered the variations, omitting an eighth variation. The work was premiered in its altered form without Tchaikovsky’s knowledge in 1877. Fitzenhagen’s considerable modifications made their way into the printed editions of the work which appeared in the following years. When Tchaikovsky realised the extent to which his composition had been re-worked, he is reported to have said “The devil take it! Let it stand as it is!” Subsequently, the original version has been recovered, but the majority of performances adhere to the version altered by Fitzenhagen.

The work is scored for two flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and strings in the style of the late eighteenth century orchestra without trumpets or timpani. The theme is not actually a Rococo theme but an original theme by the composer in the Rococo style and is Tchaikovsky’s homage to Mozart.

The composition is relentless in its demands on the soloist as it is written in eight sections without a break. Much of the writing for the cello is in the instrument’s high register along with every conceivable technical and musical expectation placed on the soloist. Tchaikovsky demonstrates great craftsmanship in the manner in which he treats the theme throughout the variations. We are always aware of the basis of the variation but he challenges us with his consummate inventiveness, providing the listener with a wonderful set of unfolding experiences.

*David Forrest & Richard Jackson