The Capriccio was inspired by a trip Tchaikovsky took to Rome with his brother Modest as respite from the composer's disastrous marriage with Antonina Miliukova. It was in Rome, however, that the observant Tchaikovsky called Raphael a "Mozart of painting."
While in Rome, he wrote to his friend Nadezhda von Meck:
I have already completed the sketches for an Italian fantasia on folk tunes for which I believe a good fortune may be predicted. It will be effective, thanks to the delightful tunes which I have succeeded in assembling partly from anthologies, partly from my own ears in the streets.
Conductor JoAnn Falletta says:
We are hearing foreigners' views of Italy. . . . [however,] Capriccio Italien has great power, even though it's practically a pops piece, Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way. He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion. He has a gift for mixing families of instruments just right – like cantabile strings along with mighty brass. I hear the ballet element in everything Tchaikovsky writes, in his sense of rhythm. You can practically dance to both these scores!
The piece, initially called Italian Fantasia after Mikhail Glinka's Spanish pieces, was originally dedicated to the virtuosic cellist Karl Davydov and premiered in Moscow on 18 December 1880, with Nikolai Rubinstein conducting the Imperial Russian Musical Society.
The Capriccio is scored for: 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 cornets in A, 2 trumpets in E, 3 trombones (2 tenor, 1 bass), tuba, 3 timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp and strings.
After a brief bugle call, inspired by a bugle call Tchaikovsky heard daily in his rooms at the Hotel Constanzi, next door to the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirasseurs, a stoic, heroic, unsmiling melody is played by the strings. Eventually, this gives way to music sounding as if it could be played by an Italian street band, beginning in the winds and ending with the whole orchestra. Next, a lively march ensues, followed by a lively tarantella, a Cicuzza.
The brothers were there during Carnival, and, despite calling it "a folly," the composer was able to soak up Italian street music and folk songs which he then incorporated into his Capriccio. This enables some "bright primary colors and uncomplicated tunefulness."
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- Downes, Edward. "1992 Jul 08, 09 / Festival / Masur". Leon Levy Digital Archives. New York Philharmonic. Archived from the original on 4 March 2017. Retrieved 12 January 2016.
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