Capriccio espagnol, op. 34

Composed by

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

1844-1908

Orchestration

piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, strings


I. Alborada
II. Variazioni
III. Alborada
IV. Scena e canto gitano
V. Fandango asturiano

Composed 1887. First performance: October 31, 1887, St. Petersburg. Imperial Orchestra cond. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

note by Katherine Baber

In an era of nationalism—which paradoxically meant an interest in depicting “others” as much as one’s own people—the French were hardly the only ones fascinated with Spain. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaprichchio na ispanskiye temï (Capriccio on Spanish Themes) began life as a work for solo violin which, in the tradition of the Italian capriccio, would have allowed the soloist to demonstrate their skill and fancy with a series of unique, original effects. The concertmaster still does have a few solo turns, but in the final version, Rimsky-Korsakov lets the whole orchestra contribute their special effects to recreating the Spanish countryside. In the alboradas (dawn songs) of the first and third movements, we hear the promise of heat later in the day. Often these were performed on bagpipes with a hand drum as accompaniment, so each of the blistering solos by the clarinet and violin unfold over a punctuated drone (the drone of the bagpipes) with tambourine and snare drum omnipresent in the tutti sections. The fourth movement, “Scena e canto gitano,” returns to the fascination with gypsies, most closely associated with Spain despite their itinerant lifestyle. Rimsky-Korsakov then turns to the fandango—the most widespread of the Spanish dances—for his finale. Every section of the orchestra takes its turn leading the dance famous (or infamous) for its sensuality before finishing in a riotous whirl of colors.

note by James Keays

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born into an aristocratic family in Tikhvin, Russia, on March 18, 1844. At the age of twelve, he left home to attend a naval college in St. Petersburg for the next six years. Despite what looked like a career choice in favor of the navy, he had an abiding interest in music, fueled during those years by lessons with various private teachers. A meeting and private lessons with Balakirev further stimulated his interest in composition. In 1862, he embarked on an around-the-world trip on a clipper ship and managed to write his Symphony No. 1 during periods of free time. Finally, inspired by Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Borodin, he decided to devote himself to composition as a career. Together, the five young composers became known to the world as “The Mighty Handful”, or just “The Five”. Although all were dedicated to the advancement of Russian Nationalism, only Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev were professional musicians. The others were physicists, chemists, and civil servants who often had to be forced to finish their compositions.

As a young composer, Rimsky-Korsakov used instinct and experiment rather than formal training in technique. In fact, when he was appointed as the first Professor of Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he didn’t even know how to harmonize a chorale. He confessed that he had “never written a single contrapuntal exercise in [his] life and that he didn’t even know the names of the augmented and diminished intervals or chords.” Despite these handicaps, he perservered, taught himself along with his students, and eventually became the recognized leader of The Five. He had particular genius in orchestration and is widely accepted as an equal to both Berlioz and Richard Strauss. As the principal teacher of Igor Stravinsky, his influence would extend far into the 20th century.

Capriccio espagnol comes at the end of a period in Rimsky-Korsakov’s creative life that was marked by the study and perfection of orchestration. He felt that he had achieved a high degree of virtuosity free of Wagner’s influence and well within the capabilities of the standard Russian orchestra. Regarding the Capriccio, the composer wrote in his diary, “According to my plans, [it] was to glitter with dazzling orchestral color!” The first performance on October 31, 1887, with the St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra was a success even before the first public hearing, owing to the musicians’ enthusiasm at the rehearsals. Out of gratitude, Rimsky-Korsakov dedicated the work to the orchestra.

The work is in five movements to be played without pause:

I. An albarada, a type of morning serenade begins with a brilliant outburst in the full orchestra and ends with quiet arpeggios in the solo violin.

II. A set of five variations on a theme introduced by the horn quartet ends with rapid chromatic scales in the solo flute.

III. A version of the opening albarada in a different key with a clarinet in place of the violin at the end.

IV. A Scene and Gypsy Song introduced by virtuoso cadenzas in the horns and trumpets, violin, flute, clarinet, and harp. The gypsy song that follows is combined with fragments from the cadenzas.

V. A fandango (a type of Andalusian dance) in the full orchestra is followed by the opening albarado functioning as a coda to the entire work.

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