Inspired by a winter visit to Italy, the infectious energy of this composition contrasts with the composer’s ballet music
Scarcely has the smoke cleared from the Halloween fireworks than all the trimmings are up for the next big event. In Cork during the week, it was pretty obvious that Christmas has come early for the southern capital.
A subsequent Dublin saunter proved that Munster is not alone in getting the party started. We wait a little longer on Lyric. The embargo on seasonal tunes isn’t usually lifted until December 8.
Of course, there are exceptions. Handel’s Messiah, composed to encompass the whole of the Christian calendar, and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker — a story for Christmas — are always welcome on the playlist.
The famous ballet isn’t the only creation by the great Russian master that has featured among the decorations. His Capriccio Italien, which has its roots in what he heard during an extended Christmas break in Rome, premiered in Moscow on December 18, 1880.
Tchaikovsky had gone to Italy for the holiday and ended up staying almost three months. That meant he was there for Carnival at the end of January.
He spoke of the wild ravings of the crowd, the masquerade, the illuminations. The tunes he heard in the streets got him started on what would become his musical fantasy.
Then there was the sound that greeted him each morning in his hotel room. Next door was the barracks that housed the presidential guard of honour. Their day began with a bugle call. Those are the notes that provide a fanfare to introduce the piece.
The earnestness and solemnity of this opening blast of brass and the bars that immediately follow is almost like Tchaikovsky playing with his audience. They’d have been expecting something that would sound as if it was going to live up to its name as a caprice, a piece of whimsy.
Taking the imagery of the bugle call a step further, it’s rather like the cavalry lining up in readiness for the first gallop of the day. It’s not long coming, a wave of effervescence sweeping away any doubts about the composer’s intent.
Tchaikovsky takes us through the frenzied steps of an Italian tarantella, a dance said to have had its origins in a whirling ritual that was advised should an individual be unfortunate enough to be bitten by a deadly spider — a tarantula. (It was believed the mad dancing would disperse the poison.)
With the jangling clatter of tambourines prominent, it’s a rather different from the sumptuous glory of his ballet music, but the madness in the music gets to you. There’s an infectious energy about it that drives it along. It’s quite clear Tchaikovsky thoroughly enjoyed writing this score.
He had wanted to do something like the Spanish fantasias composed by his hero, Mikhail Glinka, who referred to his collection as a potpourri of folk tunes.
Tchaikovsky took copious notes of what he heard. He pored over anthologies seeking out an appropriate blend. He reckoned he got it just right thanks to melodies he described as delightful tunes. “It will be very effective,” he wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. That’s exactly what it proved to be, with a reprise presented just a fortnight following the premiere that took place almost a year after his inspirational visit to Italy. The Capriccio has been a prominent favourite in the century and a half since.
George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.