Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnol


During the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a trend of creating works of music inspired by traditional Spanish music. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol fits this trend perfectly. Composed in 1887, Capriccio Espagnol is a five-movement orchestral suite that explores Spanish rhythms, harmony and dances. The work was the first of three big orchestral works that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote between 1887-88, with the following two being the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Scheherazade. 

Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended for this suite to be for solo violin and orchestra, however after exploring the possibilities of this suite, he decided to compose just for orchestra. The work was very popular between musicians and audiences alike when Rimsky-Korsakov handed the score over to orchestras:


“At one of the subsequent concerts my ‘Spanish Capriccio’ was played. At the first rehearsal the first movement had hardly finished when the whole orchestra began to applaud. Similar applause followed all the other parts wherever the pauses permitted. I asked the orchestra for the privilege of dedicating the composition to them. General delight was the answer. The ‘Capriccio’ went without difficulties and sounded brilliant. 

At the concert itself it was played with a perfection and enthusiasm the like of which it never possessed subsequently, even when led by Nikisch himself. Despite its length the composition called forth an insistent encore. 

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 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 instruments solo, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, and so on, constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration.”


The Music
Movement I – Alborada 

The opening festive dance takes inspiration from traditional Asturian music which celebrates the rising of the sun. The bright orchestral timbres are accentuated by the piercing tambourine and upper woodwind. Quick clarinet interludes keep the orchestra moving forward as Rimsky-Korsakov uses dynamics to show light and shade within the music. This dance returns again in the middle of the suite.


Movement II – Variazioni

The lyrical second movement opens with the horns who play the main theme of the movement. Their soft tone and lilt in rhythm creates a reflective mood for this movement. As the title suggests, variations of this theme are then taken by other instruments of the orchestra to create a theme and variation structure. The upper strings are first to take a variation, then followed by a solo horn and the woodwind section. 


Movement III – Alborada

Very similar to the opening Alborada, this second dip into this traditional Asturian dance is now in a different key and instead of using the solo clarinet, now uses a solo violin to present the theme. The bright change of key brings us out from the somewhat sombre second movement and back into racing Spanish themes and Rimsky-Korsakov’s bright timbres. 


Movement IV – Scena a canto gitano (Scene and Gypsy Song)

Five separate cadenzas open the bold fourth movement. First for the horns and trumpets and then moving onto a solo violin, flute, clarinet and harp. These cadenzas show off the virtuosity of these sections and soloists, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov showing us what the main theme will be for this movement. A triple-time dance then ensues, which makes up the rest of this movement. This movement then moves straight into the finale with no break in music.


Movement V – Fandango asturiano

Another lively Asturian dance forms the foundation for the finale movement. Snippets of the Alborada movements are heard throughout this movement. This energetic dance shows the adaptability and attention to detail that an orchestra has to offer. From rousing loud sections to quiet intricate wind interludes, this finale keeps you on the edge of your seat. A rousing reprise of the opening Alborada theme is played, but this time fully-realised and much faster in tempo. As the pace picks up even more, Fandango asturiano concludes with a thrilling coda. 


Final Thoughts

Still regarded as one of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular works, Capriccio Espagnol is jam-packed full of melodies, traditional Spanish dances and thrilling tempo changes to keep both the orchestra and the audience gripped to each and every note.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade


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