An Appreciation for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol”
There is an old saw in music that the best Spanish music has been written by French composers. As initially insulting as that might sound, it is hard to argue that there isn’t a lot of great Spanish music to have come from the pens of Frenchmen. Take for example the great opera, Carmen, by Georges Bizet, or Emanuel Chabrier’s España, or Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, among many others. Nonetheless, Spanish culture, rich and varied as it is, has been the inspiration for many composers in addition to those of neighboring France. Further afield, the Russian composer, and founder of the Russian Nationalist movement, Mikhail Glinka spent two years in Spain and composed several works influenced by Spain and its culture. It is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to Glinka’s importance that Rimsky-Korsakov turned his interest to Spain for his brilliant Capriccio Espagnol. On the other hand, the French predilection for the colors of Spain and other national idioms is exemplified in Claude Debussy’s orchestral set, Images.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is certainly one of a handful of Russia’s most influential and important composers. After Glinka, the formation of “The Five” played a central role in shaping Russian music for the rest of the 19th century. Tchaikovsky, who stands outside of that group, is probably the preeminent composer of Russian history, yet Rimsky-Korsakov exerted tremendous influence, not only through his leading role as part of the nationalist school, but as an important academic and the teacher of Igor Stravinsky. Among Rimsky-Korsakov’s most prominent contributions to the history of Russian music is the textbook he wrote on the use of the instruments of the orchestra. His mastery of orchestration is perhaps the hallmark of his musical character, in addition to his interest in Russian and other national folk idioms.
Though he never set foot in Spain, Rimsky-Korsakov became enchanted with the color and variety of Spanish folk music, primarily through collections of folk songs that came to his attention in the 1880s. It is from these sources that he derived the music for his Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 (1887). In a similar vein as at least two of Rimsky’s other successful works, Fantasia on Two Russian Themes and Scheherazade, the Capriccio was conceived as a work for orchestra with solo violin. The work was premiered in the same year it was completed and was an instant success in Russia, widely acclaimed by fellow composers, including Tchaikovsky who hailed it as a masterpiece of orchestration. The Capriccio is in five movements, each of different character and all based on Spanish song types, such as the alborada (morning song), gypsy dances, and the fandango (a dance type of uncertain regional origin), here associated with the region of Asturias, on the northern coast of Spain.
The brief opening “Alborada” jolts the orchestra to life with a fanfare-like theme engaging the rich colors of the full orchestra. A solo clarinet introduces and joyfully sings the main theme of the movement before handing off to the solo violin. The clarinet and violin exchange fragments as the movement concludes. A set of five variations on a romantic theme make up the second movement, first in the horns, then the low-strings, followed by dialoging solos in the French and English horn. A pair of richly expressive string variations ensues concluded by a swirling flute. This section is interrupted by the boisterous Alborada theme, again featuring a busily active solo violin answered by clarinet. The next section is led initially by the brass and percussion introducing the passionate character of the “Gypsy Song.” The solo violin plays a virtuosic cadenza over the rolling snare. A throbbing dance rhythm begins only to be interrupted by a series of wind solos, flute, clarinet, and oboe, and finally brief harp flourishes. The full string section then sings the intensely passionate song over the rhythmic pulse of the accompaniment, which transitions directly into the concluding “Fandango asturiana.” The appearance of the castanets and the series of colorful solos mark this section, which builds to a furious coda based on the swirling Alborada theme and brings the work to a breathless conclusion.