1880: Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien
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1880: Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien

History and analysis of Tchaikovsky's orchestral work in one movement, Capriccio italien of 1880.

Capriccio italien, Op. 45

Late in 1879, Tchaikovsky embarked on a long tour of Italy, one of the happiest and most carefree episodes in his life, but by no means was he musically idle.  During this time the composer was working on his Second Piano Concerto and was revising his Second Symphony. As part of the tour, he spent three months in Rome; there he was constantly delighted by the street songs, which sent him in search of volumes on Italian folk music. Soon he wrote to his faithful correspondent and patroness Madame Nadezhda von Meck that he was sketching an Italian fantasy for orchestra. Of the work, he wrote: "Thanks to the charming themes, some of which I have taken from collections and some of which I have heard in the streets, this work will be effective." Today, the Capriccio italien, Op. 45 is one of Tchaikovsky's most effective and satisfying small-scaled works for orchestra. The reason lies in the skill with which the composer put together his borrowed melodies, the brilliant orchestration, the swift changes of tempo, and the carefree spirit that pervades the work.

Tchaikovsky in 1880

Composed between January 16 and May 27, 1880, the work received its first performance in Moscow, on December 18, when it was conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky's Italian Capriccio unabashedly emulates the Spanish fantasies by Mikhail Glinka, where the older composer masterfully evokes the Mediterranean world, and owes a definite debt to the second of these, Recollection of a Summer Night in Madrid. Like Glinka's aforementioned work, the Capriccio was written in a single movement loosely stitching together a succession of independent sections, each conjuring up some unspecified aspect of Italian life or scenery.

In the Andante un poco rubato introductory fanfare, a loud trumpet intones a bugle call which the composer heard daily in his hotel room, coming from the courtyard of the Italian Royal Cuirassiers barracks. This opening flourish is followed by a series of highly contrasted sections. A melancholic theme is accompanied by rhythmic wind instruments and worked out at some length, after which the oboes present a folk melody which the orchestra takes up and elaborates, bringing it to a climax. With a change of tempo to Allegro, a lively march section then ensues and a sprightly theme is then developed. When the melancholic theme returns, it leads into the Presto final episode, consisting of a fast and brilliant Tarantella which brings the work to its joyous conclusion.

Author's addendum:

*  The cover image is "Capriccio Italien" (2006) by W.A. Bolgherese.

*  The audio files embedded above are an old recording from the 1950s of Antal Dorati conducting the MSO.  Dorati was inaguably one of the best conductors of the first half of the 20th century, so if you can forgive this worn-out Mercury vinyl, it might be one of the better renditions you're likely to find.  These are only examples.  Please support working artists and purchase music and art legally.  Thank you.

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Comments (6)

A wonderful article! When I was in grade school, I had an LP with Capriccio Italien on one side and the 1812 Overture on the other side. I loved them both!

Thank you Kathleen. For a reasonable cost, you can love them both again for $8.99 USD. Here's a terrific budget recording of that plus a few more pieces. http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=8.555923

I guess I have to get a separate external hard drives just for my music compilation. Your articles is the number 1 in my bucket list, many thanks!

Ranked #4 in Music & Musicians

Excellent. I was hoping you would get to Capriccio Italien, I've always liked this piece.

Thanks, Ron...I hope that's a good thing. :-)

And you're welcome, Michael.

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