Friday, February 19, 2021

Tchaikovsky - Capriccio Italien, Opus 45

The truth about Tchaikovsky's secret has been long known to the world since his death. The fact that he was homosexual at a time and place where it was looked upon as a very serious matter no doubt contributed to the periods of emotional fragility he had throughout his life.  Tchaikovsky himself fought with his tendencies, for he knew well the consequences if they were discovered. He even went so far as to get married to try and become more normal as defined by society, or at least to give him the appearance of appearing more normal.

That the marriage was a total disaster should be no surprise. Tchaikovsky immediately left his new bride after the honeymoon and promptly had a nervous breakdown. Just what a nervous breakdown is, I've never had explained to me. No doubt it's a catch-all phrase for depression or some such other mental problem. In any case, Tchaikovsky fled to Switzerland. He tried to divorce his wife, and she at first agreed but she changed her mind and threatened to disclose his secret should he press for a divorce.   They stayed married and Tchaikovsky seems to have come to terms with who he was.

After he recuperated from his emotional crisis, he went on to finish an opera, his fourth symphony and violin concerto. Then he roamed Europe and Russia for a few years, never staying in one place for long. He made a trip to Rome during carnival season and it was there he was inspired to write a piece for orchestra based on Italian folk songs. He wrote down some of the songs he heard being played and consulted a volume of Italian folk songs for other examples. It ended up being a very loosely organized composition with songs linked together to make a whole.  In the hands of a lesser composer, the work might have been put together slipshod with the seams showing. But Tchaikovsky was a master composer and excellent craftsman, and the Capriccio Italien works very well on all levels.  It is brilliantly orchestrated and constructed. It has been a crowd-pleaser since it was written and premiered in 1880 in Moscow with Nicolai Rubenstein conducting.

The work opens with a fanfare for trumpets, a tune he heard played outside the window of his hotel in Rome. The piece goes through a number of folk songs of differing moods, and ends with a rousing tarantella, the dance that legend says is caused by the bite of the tarantula spider and makes the victim dance a frenzied dance until death.

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