Tchaikovsky composed his exhilarating Capriccio italien during a dark period in his life. The recent death of his father and the 25th anniversary of his mother’s death had upset the composer. Before he left Paris for Rome in December 1879, Tchaikovsky received news from his brother Modest that his old homosexual acquaintance Prince Golitsyn and the prince’s lover were staying in Italy’s capital. This threw the composer, who was always torn apart by his own homosexuality and any reminders of it, into the depths of despair. Writing to Modest, he declared, “You will not believe the horror that Golitsyn and Masalitinov (the prince’s lover) instill in me. I like them both, but have grown terribly unused to them. For God’s sake, prepare them for the thought that I am dreadfully depressed by my work… that I lock myself in my room all day until dinner.”
The composer did manage to rein in his neuroses long enough to absorb some local color, taking in Carnival at the end of January. He jotted down much of the music that he heard there and spent time poring over collections of Italian folk songs and dances during his holiday. His ethnography and researches are reflected in the Capriccio, with its bright primary colors and uncomplicated tunefulness. The work, though conceived by a deeply troubled Tchaikovsky, is one of the most direct he ever composed, a swaggering paean to a city that obviously stirred something in the soul of this most sensitive of composers.
— John Mangum