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Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

About the Work

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Quick Look Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Prelude Festival Concerts Sep. 8 - 9, 2005
© Richard Freed

In his autobiography, My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov recalled that in 1886 he had been pleased with the Fantasy on Russian Themes, for violin and orchestra, which he had composed that year

and took it into my head to write another virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra, this time on Spanish themes. However, after making a sketch of it I gave up that idea and decided instead to compose an orchestral piece with virtuoso instrumentation. [This piece] was to glitter with dazzling colors . . .

The opinion formed by both critics and the public, that the Capriccio is a "magnificently orchestrated piece," is wrong. The Capriccio is a brilliant composition for orchestra. The change of timbre, the felicitous choice of melodic design and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for solo instruments, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration. The Spanish themes, of dance character, furnished me with rich material for putting in use multiform orchestral effects. All in all, the Capriccio is undoubtedly a purely external piece, but vividly brilliant for all that.

The Capriccio, composed in 1887, was given its premiere in St. Petersburg on October 31 of that year, with Rimsky himself conducting. The work is laid out in five brief sections, which fall into two larger divisions. The first of these larger divisions comprises a vigorous Alborada for full orchestra, a set of five Variations on a theme announced by the horns, and a repetition of the Alborada with certain changes--and, one might say, exchanges--in the instrumentation. (A clarinet solo from the first section is assigned now to the violin, a violin cadenza given now to the clarinet, etc.) The second major division is a two-part finale whose first section, the Scene and Gypsy Song, is a sequence of five cadenzas (to balance the five variations heard earlier) for various solo instruments or small groups, capped by the impassioned and soaring Gypsy song in the strings. This is broken off by the assertive arrival of the Fandango of the Asturias, in which themes from the preceding sections are recalled along the way to the tumultuous conclusion. Tchaikovsky, who saw the score before the work's premiere, ended a letter to Rimsky with the declaration "that your ‘Spanish Capriccio' is a colossal masterpiece of instrumentation, and you may regard yourself as the greatest master of the present day." The letter was followed up on the day after the premiere with a gift of a silver laurel wreath. The musicians in the orchestra were no less enthusiastic, interrupting rehearsals frequently to applaud the composer-conductor. At the premiere itself the audience demanded a full repetition as soon as the first performance ended. When the score was published, Rimsky saw to it that the dedication was not merely to the orchestra as a collective body, but to every one of the musicians, whom he named individually.