In 1877, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova. The composer had hoped that the marriage would conceal his homosexuality from the conservative community, but the relationship was doomed from the start, and the couple separated almost immediately. For the next few years, Tchaikovsky was miserable, as his wife refused to agree to a divorce and occasionally threatened to reveal his secret. In 1881, Antonina gave birth to a child that was obviously not the composer's, and Tchaikovsky finally had safe grounds for divorce. Most of the output from this period is of poor quality, lacking the emotional sincerity or compelling lyricism that we associate so strongly with this composer.
The Capriccio Italien, composed in 1880, is a happy exception. Tchaikovsky drew inspiration from Mikhail Glinka's Summer Night in Madrid, which also paints a colorful landscape with characteristic melodies and dances. Tchaikovsky's piece moves freely from one scene to the next: issues of serious drama or structural coherence, which the composer faced unsuccessfully in large-scale works of this period, are not applicable. The melodic invention is as rich as in Tchaikovsky's best music, and the orchestration is consistently brilliant.
Three themes are pivotal during the course of the work. The first is presented by the entire string section after an opening trumpet fanfare and returns at the midpoint of the piece as a psychological landmark. The second, a lazy, sing-song idea that captures the relaxed essence of living the good life, originally appears in the oboes and returns brazenly near the end of the piece in the full orchestra. The final theme is based on a tarantella rhythm: it is first heard in the high woodwinds soon after the first theme fades away for the last time, and it ultimately dominates the entire second half of the piece. A series of faster and faster sections brings the work to a festive conclusion.