Capriccio Italien, op. 45

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            By 1880 Tchaikovsky, at the age of 40, was a mature, successful composer who was achieving wide recognition for his talents. By then he had completed his first four symphonies, his violin concerto, and his opera, Eugene Onegin, to just mention a few of his significant works.  At the same time, his life, personal and professional, during recent years had undergone considerable stress and anguish.  He had long chaffed under the load of teaching, and felt that it had strong ill effects upon his need for free time to compose.  Moreover, he had gone through the disaster of an ill-fated marriage that was recklessly and precipitously entered into—he and his wife separated permanently after he fled in panic after only a bit more than two months of the union.   On the other hand, in 1877, he had entered into a long and fruitful—albeit eccentric—relationship with his famous patroness, whom he insisted that he should never meet in person, but who provided fabulous longtime financial support.  A kind of wanderlust ensued, resulting in trips to Italy, first to Florence in 1878, where the fourth symphony was completed, and then to Rome during the winter of 1879-80.  It was there that the Capriccio Italien was composed.

            The change in scenery was evidently therapeutic; winter in sunny Rome during Carnival time lifts the weary spirit fleeing the ice and snow of Moscow every time.  Living with his brother, Modest, in a hotel near the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirassiers, every morning he heard a bugle call from the cavalry post.  This, the traditional Italian dances, and the general gaiety and hubbub all inspired him to begin the composition of the Capriccio Italien in January of 1880.  In a letter to his patroness, von Meck, he referred to it as an “Italian fantasy on folk tunes.”  He finished the composition later, after his return to Russia, and the première took place in December of the same year.

            The afore-mentioned bugle call dramatically opens the work at a stately pace, played in unison by the trumpets, joined by the rest of the brass, and then the whole ensemble.   A dolorous tune in the strings ensues, and it must be admitted, that it smacks more of tenebrous Russia than sunny Italy.  The bugle call returns, alternating with our melancholy tune.  A lilting duet by the oboes brings in a more salubrious mood, somewhat reminiscent of an easy cavalry lope.  After developing the idea a bit, a rousing dance brightens our mood even more, and here the mood seems to be less Italian, and more Spanish, but it’s of little matter.  The lugubrious Russian tune returns, and then we’re off on a mad (cavalry?) gallop, careening along as only Tchaikovsky can.  It’s really a spirited Italian tarantella, reputed to have originated as an attempt to dance away the spider’s bite.   With the tambourine whacking and rattling away, this scintillating mélange of Italian musical delights drives to a Tchaikovskian fury to the end.  It obviously lifted the composer’s spirits to create it, and it never fails to delight audiences likewise ever since.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan