In 1887, Rimsky-Korsakov began work on a Spanish companion piece to the Fantasia on Two Russian Themes for violin and orchestra. This became the popular Capriccio Espagnole, a virtuoso orchestral showpiece that reduced the violin's part to a few solos. Such is the emphasis on orchestral colour that the composer insisted it was 'the very essence of the composition, not its mere dressing up'.
The suite is full of Iberian melodies and rhythms, the use of castanets adding to the Spanish flavour. Listen for the romantic exoticism of the Variazioni or the vivacity of the Alborada. The bravura Fandango rounds off matters with an exuberent flourish of orchestral fireworks, concluding one of Rimsky-Korsakov's best loved works.
Rimsky-Korsakov studied piano and composition as a child, and was fascinated with opera orchestras. He trained, however, as a naval officer. In 1861 he met Balakirev, who encouraged his composition and started to perform his works. As a result, Rimsky-Korsakov abandoned his career as a naval cadet to devote himself entirely to music. Balakirev introduced Rimsky-Korsakov to Borodin, Cui and Mussorgsky, and between them they made up the Russian ‘Big Five’ or ‘Mighty Handful’ of composers. Through Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov also met Dargomïzhsky.
Rimsky-Korsakov studied hard, teaching himself harmony and counterpoint. He wrote songs, orchestral works and an opera, The Maid of Pskov (completed in 1872). Then, in 1871 he became Professor of Orchestration and Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, rapidly becoming a respected teacher. Here, his pupils included Stravinsky, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Arensky and Lyadov. He also conducted at Balakirev’s Free School and was Inspector of Naval Bands from 1873 to 1884. His next opera, May Night (1880), was his first major comic opera, a genre in which he excelled. He collected folk songs which often had an influence on his music.
His composition was frequently interrupted by his official duties at the Imperial Chapel (1883-91) and advising for the publisher Belyayev. He also set himself the task of completing and revising the work of some of his fellow-composers, such as Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and much of the seemingly uneven writing of his friend Mussorgsky. During 1887 and 1888 he wrote three of his best-known orchestral works, Sheherazade, the Spanish Capriccio and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. After that he spent his time composing operas, including Kitezh (1907) and The Golden Cockerel (1909).
Generally known for his colourful orchestral compositions, Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote songs and choral music, chamber music and works for piano. His textbook on orchestration is widely used.