Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Capriccio italien, Op. 45

Escaping his home surroundings and traveling in Western Europe was one of the ways Tchaikovsky fought his frequent bouts of depression. He loved Italy in particular, and in early 1880, during Carnival in Rome, he found himself in a hotel next door to some army barracks. Worries about his siblings and niece so dampened his spirits that he was unable to sleep. The constant noise of the carnival, which he saw as a “wild folly,” annoyed him and he was reluctant to participate in the festivities.

But he could not escape the melodic richness that surrounded him. In spite of his misgivings he sat down to compose the folksy Capriccio italien, in which he made use of these “...wonderful melodies I happened to pick up, in part from published collections and in part out in the street with my own ears.” He finished the sketches in a week and the orchestration by May. The work was premiered in Moscow in December of the same year.

The Capriccio opens with the brass fanfare, which Tchaikovsky heard every day from the adjacent barracks, answered by the strings with a melancholy theme picked up from street musicians. One catchy tune follows another in increasingly colorful orchestration. The refrain of the song that comprises the predominant theme, “Bella ragazza dalla treccia bionda,” (Pretty girl with the blond hair) laments: "Papa won't let us, and neither will Mama, so how are we going to make love." The brass fanfare and melancholy string theme return before the piece ends in a brilliant tarantella, a rapid dance in 6/8 time, supposedly originating in the Southern Italian city of Taranto.

Capriccio italien can actually be regarded as a musical postcard. Tchaikovsky begins with the trumpet (or bugle) signals from the nearby army barracks. Example 1 Only then does he get into the street songs, and finally the carnival. A long buildup with a somewhat more Spanish than Italian flavor Example 2 finally gives over the “Bella ragazza” melody on a pair of oboes accompanied by basses and tuba. Example 3 As if to keep the musical momentum going, Tchaikovsky avoids the final phrase – and thus the cadence– of the song and repeats the tune in the violins. Tchaikovsky’s second melody reinforces the suspicion that the carnival may have been from the South of Italy, which had for centuries been part of Spain until the Risorgimento (reunification of Italy) in 1861. Example 4 Add to that the tarantella that concludes the suite. Example 5
George Gershwin 1898-1937
George Gershwin
George Gershwin
Rhapsody in Blue

The musical idiom of jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of this century from ragtime and the blues. The origin of the term jazz is obscure, but it first appeared in print in 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper, in reference to enthusiasm at a baseball game. The application of the term to the specific kind of music occurred during World War I.
It was in Europe, however, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their compositions: Claude Debussy in Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky in Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud in the ballet La création du monde (1923).

George Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to the classical music audience. The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, he was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra.

In 1923 Gershwin received the commission for an extended jazz composition from a conductor of popular music, Paul Whiteman, who promoted concerts of jazz music in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Whiteman was the self-styled “King of Jazz” who attempted to make jazz more symphonic and more respectable. He tried to adapt it from dance music to concert music. Whiteman’s commission followed an Aeolian Hall concert in the fall of 1923, at which Gershwin had played piano arrangements of a few of his songs.

Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in a mere three weeks early in 1924, in a two-piano version. Lacking the skills to orchestrate the work, he turned it over for piano and jazz orchestration to Ferde Grofé, a popular composer, pianist and arranger, who served as Whiteman’s factotum. Grofé practically lived in Gershwin’s house, orchestrating the work page-by-page as it came from the composer’s pen. He also rescored the Rhapsody two years later for full symphony orchestra.

The premiere, on February 12 1924, was a smashing success. Although the critics – true to form – mostly panned it, the audience loved it. Virtually overnight, jazz became respectable. Gershwin himself played the piano part, becoming an instant celebrity. Significant credit for the success must go to Grofé’s imaginative orchestration, which has ended up as his most enduring musical contribution, along with his Grand Canyon Suite.

It is useful to be aware that the rhapsody and fantasia of the classical tradition were the genres most related to jazz in that they embodied both freedom of form and improvisation or improvisatory writing. Gershwin's – and Grofé's – take on the form transfers the jazz idiom into a work Liszt would have been proud to have written.

The Rhapsody opens with probably the most famous clarinet riff in music history. Example 1 It is answered by the horns with the principal counter-theme. Example 2 Nearly three quarters of the way through the piece, the tempo slows and the Rhapsody's next "big theme" is introduced. Example 3
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov 1844-1908
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

In the development and maintenance of the tradition of Russian nationalist music, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov occupies a place of honor. From 1871, when he joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, until his death, he taught and encouraged nearly every young Russian composer, from Glazunov and Arensky to Stravinsky and Prokofiev. After the death of Borodin and Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov edited, completed and “corrected” their manuscripts, especially their operas, and had them published. He also helped publish the works of many other less famous Russian composers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was particularly fond of “ethnic” pieces, creating compositions with a Russian, Central Asiatic, Italian or Spanish caste. In spite of the fact that his acquaintance with Spain was minimal – as a naval cadet in 1864-65, he spent three days in Cadiz – he felt sufficiently comfortable with its folk idiom to compose the symphonic suite Capriccio espagnol. The work started life as a movement in a planned fantasia for violin and piano, but during the summer of 1887 he abandoned the idea, completely revising and orchestrating the sketches. He borrowed the themes and harmonies from a collection of authentic Spanish songs, transforming them with multi-textured orchestration. From its premiere in October 1887, it has been a particular favorite among orchestra players, who get hefty solo riffs.

The five movements begin with: “Alborada” (a Spanish morning song) Example 1, which serves as a kind of musical glue to give unity to the piece. There follows a set of five variations, which are more variations in mood than bravura showpieces. Example 2 The “Scene and Gypsy Song,” features a series of faux-improvisatory orchestral solos that serve as a workup into to the principal theme. Example 3 The "Fandango," Example 4 a couples dance in triple time traditionally accompanied by guitar and castanets, completes the group. At the end a presto reprise of the Alborada returns as the coda. Example 5
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2015