The Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet was one of Tchaikovsky s first significant symphonic compositions (after the 1st Symphony and Fatum, and before the Second Symphony and the 1st Piano Concerto). The idea of writing a work based on Shakespeare s play – a favorite theme for composers – was suggested to Tchaikovsky by Balakirev, a representative of the "enemy" camp, the St Petersburg school, but at that time quite close to Tchaikovsky. He even supervised the composer s work on the piece to a certain extent. Judging by the correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Balakirev, the process of writing Romeo and Juliet was far from straightforward. The composer was not entirely satisfied with the first version of the overture, which dates from 1869. It was followed by two more: a second in 1870, and a third in 1880. Paradoxically, the complicated story of the overture s composition is virtually impossible to detect in the final version. On the contrary, the music seems to be rather the result of a spontaneous burst of inspiration than of agonizing work over many years. The tense drama of the plot, which unfolds in the utmost laconism of form, and the beautiful main themes that are characteristic of Tchaikovsky s music make Romeo and Juliet one of the most remarkable and best-loved symphonic compositions.
The Fourth Symphony, written in the course of a few months in 1877, is a composition of an entirely different character. It is a complex symphonic canvas, and for many decades music experts have crossed swords over its correct interpretation. The composer set a riddle for listeners by leaving a detailed programme of the piece. This programme, which goes into some detail concerning the events that take place in the music, leads one to the thought that Tchaikovsky s Fourth Symphony is yet another variation on the eternal Beethoven theme of the struggle with fate and the overcoming of individual sufferings by their dissolution in universal suffering. The "theme of fate" intrudes into the lyrical episodes, while the optimistic finale features quotes from the folk song In a Field a Birch-Tree Stood. The composer described the role of this song in the story-line of the symphony as follows: "If you cannot find any motives for joy in yourself, look at others. Go to the people".
But is it really that simple? We recall that the result of a creative work often turns out to be a good deal more complex and fascinating than the intellectual computations that go with it. Tchaikovsky, like all geniuses, provides no unambiguous answers: the voice of a hostile external force, as if personified in the "theme of fate", frequently sounds like the fruit of the hero s inner world, and the "triumphant" finale, for some reason, brings to mind the ambiguous optimism of Shostakovich s finales.
A year after the Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote his Variations on a Rococo Theme for solo cello and orchestra. This composition shows no trace of the restless moods of the Fourth Symphony. An early example of neoclassicism, not yet burdened with irony and therefore of a fine, sunny disposition, Variations on a Rococo Theme is, perhaps, one of the composer s brightest works. However, its appearance was in no way a matter of chance, and should be considered alongside Tchaikovsky s other "neoclassical" compositions: the symphonic suite Mozartiana (1887) and the intermezzo The Faithful Shepherdess from the opera The Queen of Spades. Variations on a Rococo Theme is also a remarkable part of the cello repertoire, wonderfully demonstrating the rich, expressive potential of the instrument.