Richard Strauss' Aus Italien (1884) marked the composer's first important step in the direction of the tone poem, a genre he would decisively influence and ultimately perfect. After sketching the music during a visiting to Italy in the summer of 1886, Strauss completed the work in September of that year. It was premiered in the following March at a concert of the Court Orchestra in Munich; over the following year it was performed in various cities throughout Germany.
Though Aus Italien looks forward to Strauss' colorful, pyrotechnic tone poems, it differs from them in its descriptive--rather than narrative--program. Unlike those later, single-movement works, Aus Italien is essentially a four-movement symphony. In some ways Strauss' work resembles Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 in A Major, the "Italian" Symphony, which is similarly evocative of sunny Mediterranean landscapes. A correspondence is similarly evident in the broad structural outlines of the two works; still, Strauss' "symphonic fantasy" also contains distinct elements that made their way into his later works.
Each movement bears a title that conveys some aspect of an Italian travelogue. "Auf der Campagne" ("On the Roman Campagna"), marked Andante, is a character piece that sets the tone for the entire work. Three main themes build to an impressive conclusion as Strauss sketches the expansive countryside. In "In Roms Ruinen" ("Among the Roman Ruins"), marked Allegro molto con brio, Strauss explores contrasting ideas to reflect the past glory of Rome in a contemporary light. Some of the most intensely atmospheric moments occur in the third movement, "Am Strande von Sorrent" ("At the Beach at Sorrento"), marked Andantino, which assumes the function of a symphonic slow movement. Here Strauss creates a sense of musical space anticipating that in his famous Alpine Symphony (1911 - 15). The final movement, "Neapolitanisches Volkslben" ("Neapolitan Folklife"), is a tarantella that opens with a quotation of the song "Funiculi, funiculà." In using the song, Strauss had assumed it was an authentic folk tune, not realizing that it had been composed by one of his contemporaries, Luigi Denza (1846 - 1922).
The orchestration of Aus Italien bears a stronger resemblance to that of Liszt or Tchaikovsky than to the fuller, more burnished sound of Strauss' own mature works. Some of the orchestral effects, like the loud opening of the final movement, are part of the stock-in-trade of the period and hardly hint at the innovative instrumental idiom of Strauss' later music. Nevertheless, certain features--rich divisi writing for the strings, the distinctive deployment of the winds and brass--look forward to the integral virtuosic aspect of Strauss' mature language. In all, Aus Italien is a transitional work that demonstrates Strauss' migration from the more classical forms of his youth to the expressive, more personal mode of his tone poems and operas.