Together with the Overture “1812” the Capriccio Italien (Op. 45) is the earliest work of Pyotr Tchaikovsky that I listened to. They were both on the same recording I got as a teenager for Christmas, the third piece being the Marche Slave. Its introduction is impressive enough for a young, ignorant mind. Trumpets! More brass joining the trumpets. And then the strings, a dramatic, earnest gesture, a hint of melancholy…
An now, listen to this! This string figure, in the reprise, three minutes into the piece, ah, what a delight! The French have coined the term “volupté” for which I found no English equivalent (sensuality?). Tchaikovsky’s intention was to pay tribute to his favourite country: Italy. He wrote the Capriccio in 1880 during the Roman carnival, and to his patron Nadezhda von Meck he wrote on January 28: “I began to make sketches of an Italian fantasy based on folk themes. I want to write something like Glinka’s Spanish fantasies.”
Five themes are weaved into this wonderful symphonic piece, one of them a tarantella, a folk dance from the south of Italy, and the carnevalesque element comes half way through this piece. Italy as it vibes and jives, with a increasing level of energy. “I have worked successfully over the recent days, and I have already prepared in rough my Italian Fantasia on folk themes, which it seems to me, might be predicted to have a good future”, he writes on February 5 to von Meck. “It will be effective, thanks to its delightful tunes, some of which were chosen from collections, and some of which I heard myself on the streets.” In this same letter Tchaikovsky provided a detailed account of a Roman carnival.
If I chose the Capriccio Italien as a subject on this day, it has to do with the summer. A glaring heat, a sky as blue as it could be – and I take it easy! No long explanations. Music to be enjoyed. Music to revel in. And I am pretty sure Tchaikovsky enjoyed writing it. “This trip had a most beneficial influence on me”, he writes in another letter to von Meck. He was done with the bulk of the work within a week! Unheard of. The muse must have been chasing him across the parc of the Villa Ludovisi, one of his favourite spots.
The Capriccio has been recorded by Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
© Charles Thibo