Considering the great interest in Spanish music demonstrated by the father of Russian art music, Michael Glinka (Glinka traveled extensively in Spain, collected folk materials, and composed pieces based on them), it is not surprising that such a Glinka disciple as Rimsky-Korsakov would look for similar geographic sources of inspiration. So it is that the very Russian Rimsky-Korsakov conceived a fantasy on Spanish themes; he originally intended it to be for violin and orchestra. As it developed, however, the Capriccio espagnol came to be a virtuoso work not only for violin, but a work that could rightly be subtitled “Fantasy for violin, clarinet, oboe, flute, horn, trumpet (etc., etc.).” Which is to say that while the composition’s accent is Spanish, its emphasis is on solo instrumental virtuosity as well as on the brilliant orchestral effulgence that is so typical of Rimsky.
The composer himself was not loath to comment on the dazzling merits of the piece, saying, “It is intended as a brilliant composition for the orchestra. The change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas for solo 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.”
Well said; it is good to see a composer have a healthy respect for his work. Only one thing might be added, and that is another word to the title, making it Capriccio russo-espagnol, for the work is at least as capriciously Russian as Spanish, the unifying thread being exotic (read “gypsy”) scales and rhythmic design.
The piece is in five sections.
1. Alborada. This “morning song” begins with eye-opening, full orchestral thrust, out of which emerge clarinet and violin solos, the latter ending the section quietly.
2. Variations. A simple Spanish folk melody is given by horns. Five variations – really just elaborations on the theme – exploit various solo voices, the last ending with languorous flute chromatics.
3. Alborada. A return of the first section; here, violin and clarinet reverse their first-movement solo passages.
4. Scene and Gypsy Song. A side drum initiates a fanfare for horns and trumpets alone; solo trumpet blazes out the theme. Next, solo violin takes it up; then flute and clarinet, with percussion and strings accumulating. A flute cadenza over a timpani roll, then clarinet over cymbals, after which there is a harp and triangle duet. Finally a ferocious idea in strings interjects; this is the gypsy song, which then alternates with the opening fanfare motif in orchestral splendor. This merges into
5. Fandango of the Asturias. Trombones present the first part of the theme, winds the second. After varying timbral treatment, the Alborada returns to bring the Capriccio to a fiery close.
— Orrin Howard