I. Auf der Campagna (Andante) II. In Roms Ruinen (Allegro molto con brio) III. Am Strande von Sorrent (Andantino) IV. Neapolitanisches Volksleben (Allegro molto)
The six months that Richard Strauss spent in Meiningen between October 1885 and April 1886 were to prove an important turning point in his career. Although he was prompted to accept the job as second-conductor because of the personality of the principal conductor Hans von Bülow, and the personal presence of his then hero, Johannes Brahms, he ultimately fell under the influence of the aesthetic views of a Liszt admirer, Alexander Ritter. After leaving Meiningen, he spent two months travelling in Italy, and it is little wonder that on returning to his parent’s home in Munich, he sensed he could express what he had experienced within the framework of a symphonic fantasy, Aus Italien. Although programme music, Aus Italien is still not a symphonic poem in the strict sense of the word: rather than following Liszt’s example of a single movement work, the young Strauss chose a four movement symphonic structure. However, the clear programme it contains represents Strauss’ first great leap in the direction of a new genre, which with his work Macbeth of 1887, would conquer him for ever.
The first movement, Auf der Campagna (In the country), depicts the atmosphere of the Italian countryside from the Villa d’Este, as the countryside is bathed in the first rays of the rising sun. In the second movement, In Roms Ruinen, (In the Roman ruins), we are presented with a portraits of glorious times past, portrayed with a pregnant nostalgia both rich in fantasy and sorrow. Strauss described the third movement, Am Strande von Sorrent (By the banks of the Sorrento) as follows: “It is an attempt to transplant into music the subtle music of nature, the sound of the wind rustling the trees, the birdsong and the sea murmering in the distance.” Strauss explained that as an antithesis to the above, he attempted to express in music the feelings that these sensations arouse in a human being. Finally, the Finale presents the peasant life of the people of Naples, which Strauss evokes through extracts from Funiculi, Funicula and other Neopolitan songs.
Although in the third movemnet, certain imitative effects play an important role, Strauss was quite stern about the dangers of over estimating their importance:
“These days, the blinding, but entirely incidental exteriors of my works causes misunderstanding and extraordinarily false judgements from many critics and audiences alike, which take attention away from the true content of the composition. The content is not a description of the beauties of Rome and Naples, but of those feelings, which overwhelm a person who first glimpses them… Basically, it is ridiculous in the end to imagine of a contemporary composer, who admits his indebtedness to late Beethoven, Wagner and Liszt, , that the reason he composes a three quarter hour long work is to produce some piquant sound painting, of which virtually any conservatory student is capable. Our art is expression, and a piece of music, which does not express poetic content – naturally, that which can only be said with notes, and which in words can at best only allude to it – for me, that is many things, but it is not music.”