How Wilhelm Fitzenhagen “cello-ed up” Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme

By Susan Oliver for Peterborough Symphony Orchestra


Since Tchaikovsky had no hands-on experience as a cellist, he gave the sketches for the piece (arrangement for cello and piano) to Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (who was Tchaikovsky’s colleague on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory and widely considered the premiere cellist in Russia) for checking and advice. Fitzenhagen made some changes to the cello part and the resulting collaboration was performed at the world premiere in Moscow in 1877.

Before publication, and unbeknownst to Tchaikovsky, Fitzenhagen re-ordered the variations, altered their structures, and even omitted the original eighth variation completely, thus creating a ‘cello-ed up’ version which maximized his own exposure. Tchaikovsky’s publisher, Pyotr Jurgenson, wrote immediately in protest to the composer: “Loathsome Fitzenhagen! He is most insistent on making changes to your cello piece, and he says that you have given him full authority to do so. Good God! Tchaikovsky revu et corrigé par Fitzenhagen!!!

Fitzenhagen’s ‘cello-ed up’ version received great response, however, and while the original version was rediscovered and published in 1956, Fitzenhagen’s is still the most commonly played edition in concert today.