Capriccio espagnole, op. 34

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            Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s career stood in the very center of Russian musical life of the  second half of the nineteenth century.  His first career was in the Russian navy, but he soon garnered success in music.  Known primarily for his fifteen operas, he was instrumental in the rising importance of that genre in Russia.  In addition to his fame and influence as a composer, he was also head of the conservatory in St. Petersburg--his statue dominates the little park directly across the street from the conservatory and the famed Mariinsky Theatre.   In the West, of course, we know him primarily for his symphonic overtures and the tone poem, Scheherazade.  His ability as an orchestrator and teacher of orchestration is one of his many legacies--Igor Stravinsky was one of his students.  In fact, much of the marvelous musical atmosphere that audiences adore in Stravinsky’s early ballets, the Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Petrouchka, leads directly back to Rimsky-Korsakov and the orchestral style of his operas.  And it is of no small interest that there are sections in Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloé that seem lifted right out of Scheherazade. A fascination with the exotic, with non-Western subject matter was a prime characteristic of Romanticism, and Russian music of the late nineteenth century is exemplary of this predilection. 

            Capriccio espagnole (1887) dates from the time of his ever-popular Scheherazade and Russian Easter Overture, and is just as infused with exotic and ethnic musical color as the latter works.  While based upon indigenous Spanish themes, Capriccio espagnole is much more than a simple suite of orchestrated folk tunes.  The composer was adamant about that, and the marvelous orchestral effects and completely integrated structure are clear evidence of the originality of the composer’s vision.   There are five sections, beginning with "Alborada," a dance celebrating the rising sun that features florid solos by the clarinet and violin.  The horn section begins the second section, "Variazioni," with a rather doleful melody, quickly taken up by the strings, followed by the English horn and more iterations thereafter.   The third section is basically a reprise of the opening, but with a master of the orchestra like Rimsky-Korsakov at the helm, the colors are all redone.  A "Scena e canto Gitano" (scene and Gypsy song) follows, with various sections of the orchestra, beginning with the trumpets, playing their own recitative-like passages.  From time to time, the composer directs the strings to imitate the sounds of a guitar. An elegant dance leads without pause into the closing section, "Fandango asturiano."  The fandango is a vigorous dance, usually accompanied by guitars and castanets, and in this case, representative of the area of Asturias, located in northwest Spain, on the Bay of Biscay.  A return to the music of the opening and a frenetic dash to the end tops off yet another masterpiece of Spanish music written by a non-Spaniard.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan