Program Notes: Nights in the Garden of Spain

Program Notes: Nights in the Garden of Spain

El Jaleo, 1882, oil on canvas by John Singer Sargent. The name El Jaleo refers to both the broad meaning of jaleo, a ruckus, and the specific dance known as jaleo de jerez.

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Full program notes:

Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Born: March 16, 1844, Tikhvin, Russia
Died: June 21, 1908, Lyubensk

Capriccio espagnol, Opus 34

In 1886 Rimsky-Korsakov set to work on two companion pieces, planned as fantasies for violin and orchestra on themes of two different nations. He got the first of them, a Fantasia on Two Russian Themes, done by the end of the year, and he went on to the next, a projected violin fantasy on Spanish themes. But as he worked, the music gradually changed form: Rimsky gave up the idea of a showpiece for violin and instead wrote a brilliant work for orchestra based on Spanish themes. The Capriccio espagnol, as it was called, was completed in August 1887, and the composer led the premiere in St. Petersburg on October 31 of that year.

From that instant, this music has been a huge success, but Rimsky was uncomfortable with praise of his orchestration. For him, there was no distinction between the music and the orchestration, and he said: “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, etc., constitute here the very essence of the composition and not its garb or orchestration.”

a virtuoso orchestra

The Capriccio espagnol shows traces of Rimsky’s original plan in its many passages for solo violin, but these are augmented in the completed version by a number of solos for other instruments: this music is a display piece for an orchestra of virtuoso instrumentalists. It falls into five brief sections of different character, all based on Spanish themes.

alborada. The work opens with an Alborada marked Vivo e strepitoso (lively and noisy). An alborada (or aubade) is an old Spanish morning song, and Rimsky’s is a real wake-up call, exploding to life in a great blaze of color; this section offers spirited solos for violin and clarinet.

variazioni. Next comes a variation movement, based on the horn’s noble opening melody; there follow five variations scored for various combinations of instruments.

alborada. Rimsky then briefly revisits his opening movement, though now in a different key and with the violin and clarinet trading their solo parts from that first movement.

scena e canto Gitano. Scene and Gypsy Song is the longest of the five movements. The Scene opens with a rolling snaredrum, followed by a fanfare shared by trumpet and horn, and Rimsky offers solo passages to a variety of instruments, including violin, clarinet and oboe, before the music proceeds into the fierce beginning of Gypsy Song. That fiery song is appropriately assigned to the violins, who speed directly into the concluding movement.

fandango asturiano. This movement dances, at first with dignity and then with wild abandon, before Rimsky brings back a touch of the opening Alborada to rush matters to an exciting close.

Early listeners were amazed by this music. The Russian Symphony of St. Petersburg, which gave the premiere, was so enthusiastic that Rimsky dedicated it to them and wrote the names of all 67 players into the score. Tchaikovsky, then composing his Fifth Symphony, described the Capriccio as “a colossal masterpiece of instrumentation” and called Rimsky “the greatest master of the present day.”

In 1889, two years after the premiere, Rimsky led Capriccio espagnol at concerts at the International Exhibition in Paris, where it dazzled Western audiences. Among the most astonished were two young Frenchmen—the 27-year-old Debussy and the 14-year-old Ravel—who both suddenly realized just how brilliant an orchestra might sound.

Manuel de Falla

Manuel de Falla
Born: November 23, 1876, Cádiz
Died: November 14, 1947, Alta Grazia, Argentina

Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for Piano and Orchestra

As a young man in Spain, Manuel de Falla had been a student of Felipe Pedrell, who advised his students to turn to Spanish topics as a way of writing authentically Spanish music. Seven years’ study in Paris only intensified Falla’s feelings about his homeland, and in 1909 he sketched three nocturnes for solo piano, each inspired by a garden in Spain. When World War I broke out the summer of 1914, Falla returned to Spain, and there he recast these sketches for piano and orchestra, calling his new work Nights in the Gardens of Spain. Among the hearts won by this music’s early performances in Madrid was that of the young Artur Rubinstein, who performed it often and made several memorable recordings.

Falla gave his work a concise subtitle, “Symphonic Impressions for Piano and Orchestra”—not “concerto,” as its threemovement structure might suggest. And however much this music gains from the orchestra, Nights in the Gardens of Spain still reflects its beginning as a series of nocturnes for solo piano. And despite the evocative titles of each movement, as well as the work’s own title, Falla wrote that “The music has no pretension to being descriptive; it is merely expressive. But something more than the sound of festivals and dances have inspired these ‘evocations in sound,’ for melancholy and mystery have their part also.”

music that shimmers and glows

En el Generalife, inspired by a famous garden in the Alhambra in Granada, begins with the rustle of violas playing ponticello (bowing right on top of the bridge) and rocking through a very narrow interval, and this slow oscillation magically expands to furnish most of the material for the first movement. Falla’s sense of orchestral color here is remarkable, as the music shimmers and glowers in turn. The second movement, Danza lejana (Distant Dance), isn’t named for a specific garden; much of it does sound like a dance heard from far away, though it can swirl to brilliant life. Then without pause—after a thrilling rush up the scale—we plunge into the third, most brilliant movement, En los jardines de la Sierra de Cordoba. Marked Vivo, it reminds some of gypsy music, others a wild nocturnal festival, full of exciting rhythms and bright colors. At the end, the dancing fades into the dark mountains of Cordova, and the music vanishes on three soft pizzicato strokes.

Emmanuel Chabrier

Emmanuel Chabrier
Born: January 18, 1841, Ambert, Puy-de-Dôme, France
Died: September 13, 1894, Paris


Emmanuel Chabrier, a piano prodigy as a child, longed to be a composer, but was steered into a “sensible” career as a minor government official. Then— like so many other French composers—he traveled to Spain and found the music intoxicating. Noting down several characteristic melodies and dance rhythms he had heard in Andalusia, he fashioned what he called a fantasia for solo piano. He orchestrated it at the urging of the conductor Charles Lamoureux, who led the premiere of the new version, España, in Paris on November 4, 1883. It was an instant success, and now, 125 years later, it remains his best known work.

Chabrier himself noted that he had built España on two characteristic Spanish dances—the sultry malagueña and the lively jota—and he contributed a third theme of his own, a jaunty melody shouted out by the trombones. Much of the fun of this piece lies in its rhythmic vitality. España gets off to a steady start that convinces us that it’s in 2/4, and just when our ears have adjusted to that, Chabrier shifts the accents in a way that lets us know that this piece is really in 3/8. That sort of rhythmic displacement will occur throughout, and at several points Chabrier experiments with polyrhythmic overlapping: one part of the orchestra will stay in 3/8 while other sections within it are playing in 2/4. (Try beating time along with this piece—it will fool you again and again.)

The colors of España are as memorable as the rhythms are infectious. Chabrier writes imaginatively for the orchestra, employing such unusual instruments as cornets and basque tambourine and such effects as col legno, requiring the strings to play extended passages with the wood of the bow. The Spanish dances sing and surge voluptuously, and España rushes to its close in a great wash of brilliant sound.

Georges Bizet

Georges Bizet
Born: October 25, 1838, Paris
Died: June 3, 1875, Bougival

Suite No. 2 from Carmen

Carmen, Bizet’s fiery opera of passion, jealousy and murder, was a failure at its first performance in Paris in March 1875. Why it wasn’t a smash success from the first instant remains a mystery—because it has everything going for it: excitement, color and instantly-recognizable tunes. In fact, it’s one of the greatest operas ever.

Bizet died only months after the premiere, and in the years following, the French composer Ernest Guiraud arranged excerpts from Carmen into two orchestral suites of six movements each. For the one we hear tonight, assembled in 1887, he orchestrated arias, choruses and dances from the opera and arranged them in an order of his own choosing.

The furtive March of the Smugglers comes from the beginning of Act III, when the smugglers encourage each other during their nighttime foray. The Habanera, some of the opera’s most famous music, is an orchestration of Carmen’s great Act I aria “Love is a rebellious bird”; in it she states that love is a wanton and unknowable force and warns: if you love me, beware. The Nocturne is an orchestration of another great aria, Michela’s “I say that I’m not afraid” from Act III, which in fact expresses her fear at the prospect of meeting Carmen. The Toreador Song comes from Act II, when the bullfighter Escamillo sings this swaggering account of his triumph in the bullring and celebrates his own virility.

Offstage trumpet calls open La Garde Montante, the music that accompanies the changing of the guard in Act I, and ragged street urchins parody the military march before the troops arrive. This scene introduces two of the opera’s principal characters: Captain Zuniga and the doomed corporal Don José. The Suite concludes with the graceful but fiery Gypsy Dance, a ballet danced at the beginning of Act II in an inn on the outskirts of Seville.

Maurice Ravel

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris


Ravel’s Boléro began life as a ballet—the dancer Ida Rubinstein asked the composer for a ballet with a Spanish atmosphere, and he wrote this score for her in 1928. In Rubinstein’s choreography, a young woman in gypsy dress mounts a table in a smoky tavern and begins to dance. Men surround the table and begin to pound out the bolero rhythm as her dance grows in excitement. The climax brings an explosion—knives are drawn—but trouble is avoided and everyone vanishes with the last chord. So exciting was the premiere in Paris on November 22, 1928, that the audience rushed the stage and Rubinstein herself barely escaped injury in the resulting tumult.

Originally, a bolero was a Spanish dance in triple-time in which the dancers sang and accompanied themselves with castanets. Ravel excludes the sound of voices and begins with the simplest of openings: a snare drum lays out the two-measure rhythmic pattern that will repeat throughout Boléro. Solo flute plays the languorous main idea, a lilting, winding melody that is extended by other wind instruments. Then Ravel simply repeats this material, subtly varying its orchestration as it gradually grows louder. The music is full of striking effects that make use of uncommon instruments or set instruments in unusual registers. At the close, he makes one harmonic adjustment, shifting from C major to E-flat major, and in this context even so simple a modulation seems a cataclysmic event. Grinding dissonances drive Boléro to a thunderous close on a great rush of sound.

Even before its use in the movie 10, Ravel’s Boléro was one of the most famous works ever written for orchestra, a favorite even with those who claim to dislike classical music. Yet this dazzling piece is remarkable for the utter simplicity of its material. Ravel himself described it as “17 minutes of orchestra without any music” and said that it was “one very long, gradual crescendo.” But it is the “non-musical” materials—the hypnotic rhythms, subtle shifts of instrumental color, absence of development, cumulative power—that make Boléro so exciting.

Program notes by Eric Bromberger.

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