In the early 1890s Antonín Dvořák conceived a symphonic triptych entitled Nature, Life, Love. The idea was realised and at the premiere the three works were performed as an integral cycle. Later, the parts of the triptych began to be performed individually as concert overtures and were given the titles of In Nature’s Realm, Carnival and Othello. The impetuous and life-affirming character of the outer sections reminds one of the composer’s Slavonic Dances. The brief middle movement is a lyrical intermezzo that depicts images of nature. Against a background of a repetitive three-tone motif of the English horn there are solo responses from the flute, clarinet and violin.
In addition to his Violin Concerto, Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote five other pieces for the instrument and orchestra. They were all composed in the latter half of the 1870s. Melancholy Serenade was initially dedicated to the renowned violinist Leopold Auer, but when Auer rejected Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto the composer removed his dedication. As a result, the first performer of both the concerto and the serenade was Adolph Brodsky. In the music of the Serenade one can pick out the lyricism of Swan Lake. The melancholy mood of the outer sections is created by the romance-like intonations of the violin, while in the middle movement there are triumphant light and elegiac moods.
The virtuoso Valse-Scherzo was composed for Tchaikovsky’s friend and pupil Iosif Kotek.
Méditation, Scherzo and Mélodie form part of the cycle Souvenir d’un lieu cher. These were composed for violin and piano, though Alexander Glazunov produced an orchestral version after Tchaikovsky’s death. By “un lieu cher (a dear place)” Tchaikovsky had meant the town of Brailov close to the estate of his friend Nadezhda von Meck.
The virtuoso, flight-filled Scherzo in the spirit of a tarantella comes next to the Mélodie in the cycle – a miniature song without words – and the restrained and lyrical Méditation. The music of the latter was initially to be included in a violin concerto, but in the event Tchaikovsky transformed it into the basis of his famous Canzonetta.
The cycle of six symphonic poems Má vlast by Bedřich Smetana is his greatest achievement in orchestral music. The most popular of the six poems is Vlatva, the name of the greatest river in the Czech Republic. The programme of the poem is related in detail by the composer: “The work depicts the path of the Vlatva from its very sources”. In the music one can hear the calls of hunting horns, the sounds of a peasant polka and the night-time chorus songs of mermaids. In the culmination of the poem (with the composer’s remark “the powerful flow of the Vlatva”) one can hear a motif of the Vyšehrad Castle from the first poem in the cycle.
Glinka’s Spanish overtures laid the basis to an engaging chapter in the history of Russian classical music. “Russian Spain” came to life in masterpieces by Dargomyzhsky and Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich...
Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol (1887) emerged from sketches for a fantasia concertante for violin and orchestra based on Spanish folk themes. The composer’s initial idea developed and expanded far beyond the realms of a fantasia or suite founded on folkloric motifs. Before us we have a dazzling orchestral concerto – one of the first such examples in Russian music. In the five movements of the Capriccio we can imagine Spain in song and dance (Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed genuine folk themes from José Inzenga’s Collection of Folk Songs and Dances).
Thanks to the varicoloured yet transparent orchestration, colourfulness and richness of flavour (in particular the castanets included in the percussion section), the score of Capriccio espagnol is a veritable encyclopaedia of orchestral mastery.
The first performance of Capriccio espagnol took place in St Petersburg on 5 December 1887 under the baton of the composer.