Written by Ken Meltzer


Capriccio espagnol, Opus 34 (1887)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, Russia, on March 18, 1844, and died in Lyubensk, Russia, on June 21, 1908. 

The first performance of the Capriccio espagnol took place at the Small Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, on October 31, 1887, with the composer conducting the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Opera House.

Approximate performance time is fifteen minutes.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed his brilliant Capriccio espagnol in the summer of 1887.  For some time, the Russian composer had been occupied with the orchestration of his opera, Prince Igor.  However, according to Rimsky-Korsakov: “In the middle of the summer this work was interrupted: I composed the Spanish Capriccio from the sketches of my projected virtuoso violin fantasy on Spanish themes.  According to my plans the Capriccio was to glitter with dazzling color, and manifestly, I had not been wrong.”

It was Rimsky-Korsakov who led the October 31, 1887 premiere of his Capriccio espagnol.  The concert took place at the Small Theater in St. Petersburg, as part of the Russian Musical Society’s concert series.  Rimsky-Korsakov conducted the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Opera House.  The concert, according to Rimsky-Korsakov, “was played with a perfection and enthusiasm the like of which it never possessed subsequently...Despite its length, the composition called forth an insistent encore.”

Rimsky-Korsakov has long been hailed as one of the masters of orchestration.  The composer himself acknowledged that the Capriccio espagnol, along with Scheherazade (1888) and the Russian Easter Overture (1888), marked the culmination of a period in “which my orchestration had reached a considerable degree of virtuosity and bright sonority…”

The five movements are played without pause.


Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18 (1901)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. 

The first performance of the Second Piano Concerto took place in Moscow, Russia, on November 9, 1901, with the composer as soloist, and Alexander Siloti conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. Society.

Approximate performance time is thirty-three minutes.

When Sergei Rachmaninoff completed his First Symphony in August of 1895, he was 22, and brimming with all the confidence of youth.  “I imagined that there was nothing I could not do and had great hopes for the future,” he later recalled.  Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony received its premiere in St. Petersburg on March 15, 1897, with composer Alexander Glazunov conducting.  The performance was a disaster, and immediately after the final notes sounded, Rachmaninoff “fled, horrified, into the street.”

While Rachmaninoff was able to escape the confines of the theater, he still had to face the wrath of the critics.  Russian composer César Cui wrote in the St. Petersburg News:

If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its many talented students were instructed to write a programme symphony on the “Seven Plagues of Egypt,” and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell.

Rachmaninoff, devastated by this turn of events, lapsed into a profound depression.  Rachmaninoff’s friends were alarmed by his state, and tried all forms of cures to buoy his spirits.  Finally, they convinced Rachmaninoff to consult Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a doctor who had gained some prominence for his employment of hypnosis.  Between January and April of 1900, Rachmaninoff visited Dr. Dahl on a daily basis. 

Rachmaninoff told Dahl that he had promised to compose a Piano Concerto.  Dr. Dahl set about treating his patient:

I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in the armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study.  “You will begin to write your Concerto...You will work with great facility...The Concerto will be of an excellent quality...”  It was always the same, without interruption.  Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me.  Already at the beginning of the summer I began again to compose.  The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me—far more than I needed for my Concerto.

Rachmaninoff completed the final two movements of his Second Piano Concerto in the autumn of 1900 and performed them at a Moscow charity concert on October 14.  Rachmaninoff added the opening movement in the spring of the following year and appeared as soloist in the October 14, 1901 premiere of the entire Second Concerto.  The composer readily acknowledged Dr. Dahl’s role in the creation of one of the most popular works of the 20th century, and dedicated the Concerto to him.

The Concerto is in three movements.  The first (Moderato) opens with a series of tolling chords by the soloist, leading to the surging first principal melody, marked con passione.  The Concerto’s slow-tempo movement (Adagio sostenuto) is a fantasia on a lovely theme, related to a melody in the Concerto’s opening Moderato.  The finale (Allegro scherzando) is based upon two themes, the second, one of Rachmaninoff’s most beloved creations.  That theme makes a glorious return in the Concerto’s closing measures.


Tahiti Trot (Tea for Two) (1928)

Dmitri Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on September 25, 1906, and died in Moscow, Russia, on August 9, 1975. 

The first performance of Tahiti Trot took place in Leningrad, Russia, in the Large Hall of the Leningrad Conservatory on November 25, 1928, with Nikolai Malko conducting the Soviet Philharmonic Orchestra.

Approximate performance time is four minutes.

While on a tour of the Ukraine, Shostakovich heard a recording of Vincent Youman’s song “Tea for Two” (known in Soviet Russia as Tahiti Trot), from the musical comedy No, No, Nanette.  Conductor Nikolai Malko challenged Shostakovich to orchestrate the song in the span of just one hour.  Shostakovich returned in forty-five minutes with the completed orchestration.  Later, Shostakovich included the delightful, jazzy work in his ballet, The Age of Gold (1930).

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Francesca da Rimini, Fantasy after Dante, Opus 32 (1876)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 6, 1893. 

The first performance of Francesca da Rimini took place at the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on March 9, 1877, with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting. 

Approximate performance time is twenty-two minutes.

On August 7, 1876, while on a train ride to Paris, Tchaikovsky read the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno, and its narration of the tragic story of Francesca da Rimini.  Tchaikovsky immediately “was inflamed with a wish to write a symphonic poem on Francesca.”  On October 7 after his return to Russia, Tchaikovsky began work on Francesca da Rimini, completing the score November 17.  For inspiration, Tchaikovsky turned not only to Dante’s immortal poetry, but to Gustave Doré’s magnificent illustration portraying Francesca and her lover Paolo facing an eternal tempest.  In an October 26 letter, Tchaikovsky informed Modest:

I have written it with love and the love (the central andante cantabile non troppo) seems to have come out respectably.  As far as the whirlwinds are concerned, it would have been possible to make something corresponding more with Doré’s illustration, but it didn't come out as I wanted.  On the other hand, a reliable judgment on this piece is inconceivable while it remains unscored and unperformed.

The March 9, 1877, premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini took place under the direction of Nikolay Rubinstein at the Russian Musical Society in Moscow.  The work proved to be a great success, earning the praise of critics and fellow composers. Francesca da Rimini’s melodic inspiration, colorful orchestration, and surging passion are all characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s finest creations.

A slow-tempo introduction depicts the descent of Dante and the shade of Virgil into the second circle of  hell, described by Tchaikovsky as “filled with groans, wails, and cries of despair.”  Dante discovers the shades of Francesca and Paolo “spinning in each other’s embrace.”  Francesca narrates her tragic story.  Although Francesca loved Paolo, she was forced to marry the cruel Rimini.  Still, Francesca’s love for Paolo burned brightly.  While the two read the story of Lancelot, Paolo passionately kissed Francesca.  At that very moment, Paolo entered the room and mortally stabbed both Francesca and Paolo.  Her narration concluded, “Francesca was again borne away in the embrace of her Paolo by the furiously and wildly raging whirlwind.”