Tchaikovsky wrote most four of his suites for orchestra in the period of time between his fourth and fifth symphonies. All but the last of them were, at some point in their creation, intended to be symphonies. What usually happened was that Tchaikovsky found he had assembled movements of dance-like character and lightness of mood, lacking formal sonata-allegro forms and hence without symphonic development. As a kind of substitute for development, Tchaikovsky often concluded his suites with a large-scale set of theme and variations.
This suite was premiered in 1885. It was reported that the audience was "electrified." Even so, it became customary to play the final movement by itself, particularly when it became the music for a ballet.
The first movement, "Elegie," used three themes, all of them flowing and lyrical, are in a rondo form. The second, "Valse mélancolique," actually goes beyond melancholy. It is, in fact, rather bitter and grieving in tone. The third movement, "Scherzo," is a tarantella with a rare and threatening martial air. The theme of the final variations is introduced on strings only, followed by 11 variations, most of which use a different selection of instruments. It ends with a grande polonaise in an intense and majestic mood.