ClassicsOnline Home » RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Snow Maiden Suite (The) / Sadko, Musical Picture / Mlada Suite / The Golden Cockerel Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral genius shines through in his colourful operatic suites, and that from his final opera Le Coq d’or is richly dramatic and expressive. The complicated folk-based story of the Snow Maiden is simplified into four enchanting movements, and that of Sadko into a single, radiantly descriptive tone-poem. The thrilling legend of Mlada is represented by vivid dances and a final Cortège. Gerard Schwarz’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade (8.572693) with the Seattle Symphony was described as ‘absolutely terrific’. (ClassicsToday.com)
By Em Marshall-Luck
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
The Snow Maiden • Sadko • Mlada • Le Coq d’or (Orchestral Suites)
Russian cultural nationalism in the nineteenth century had its musical reflection first in the work of Glinka and then in that of a group of five composers, Vladimir Stasov’s Mighty Handful, dominated by Balakirev. The group included César Cui, a professor of military fortification, the young guards officer Mussorgsky, Borodin, a professor of chemistry, and a young naval officer, Rimsky-Korsakov. Born in 1844, this last had followed his childhood ambition and family tradition by entering the naval college in 1856. He had shown an early interest and ability in music, and these he was able to further during his naval career, which lasted until his resignation from the service in 1872. Thereafter he spent a dozen years as Inspector of Naval Bands, a civilian position specially created for him, through the influence of his family, and only abolished in 1884. This led him to develop a particular interest in instrumentation, an aspect of music that had fascinated him since his first experience of opera, Flotow’s Indra, which he had seen in St Petersburg in 1857.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s first meeting with Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky had been in 1861. A tour of naval duty abroad, during which he wrote his first symphony, was followed, on his return, by a performance of the work in 1865 under the direction of Balakirev. Relations with the latter cooled over the years and Rimsky-Korsakov turned to a new circle of musicians assembled by Belyayev, whose musical Friday evenings rivalled the Tuesday evenings over which Balakirev had presided. Belyayev, moreover, was able to offer younger musicians practical support and established a publishing-house for their benefit. Of the original group of five, Mussorgsky died in 1881 and Borodin in 1887, and Rimsky-Korsakov was left to undertake the revision, completion and publication of much that they had left unfinished. His later years were not without their troubles. In the 1890s he suffered from bouts of depression and there was a breach with the Imperial Theatres when approval was not given to various new operas. In 1905 he was involved in support of the student unrest at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he had taught since 1871 and from which he was now dismissed, to be reinstated under the more liberal policies that followed the disturbances. Political trouble occurred again when his last opera, The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d’or), was refused approval by the censors, who saw in it an attack on the régime. Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908.
The opera The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) is based on a play by Ostrovsky, itself following a Russian folktale. Rimsky-Korsakov was fascinated by this vision of ancient Russian paganism and began work on the music during the summer of 1880, which he and his wife spent in a comfortable rented country-house at Stelovo, completing a rough draft of the score by August, after a mere three months. The orchestration was made during the following months in St Petersburg, where it was first performed a year later, on 10 February 1882.
The Snow Maiden, daughter of Spring and Winter, is safe from the power of the sun, her father’s old enemy, as long as she lives without love. With snow running in her veins, this is not difficult, until her proud mother endows her with more nearly mortal characteristics. She chooses to live a mortal life and a merchant, Mizgir, falls in love with her, abandoning his own beloved. When the Snow Maiden returns his love, she falls victim to the sun, and Mizgir kills himself. In the music Rimsky-Korsakov draws widely on Russian folk-song, as, for example, in the Dance of the Birds in the Prologue. The suite includes a processional for the fairy-tale Tsar Byeryendyey and a dance of the clowns for his entertainment.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s sixth opera, Sadko, was completed in 1896 and first staged in Moscow two years later. The libretto by the composer was derived from traditional heroic ballads and is set first in Novgorod. Sadko, a psaltery player and singer, offends the gathering of Novgorod merchants. Exiled through jealousy of his ambitions, he charms the Sea King’s daughter Volkhova with his music. Sadko’s entertainment led Princess Volkhova to give him a reward. She told Sadko that he would catch three golden fish, the source of his future success, after various adventures. These last include a visit to the realm of the Sea King and marriage to Princess Volkhova, before she is finally transformed into a river and Sadko, now a rich man, can return to his wife. Rimsky-Korsakov’s first treatment of the legend was in a symphonic poem, allegedly the first such in Russia, written in 1867 and bearing the title Episode from the Legend of Sadko. The composer revised the work two years later, publishing it as Sadko - Musical picture and made a final revision for further publication in 1892, before the composition of his opera on the same subject, completed in 1896. The narrative programme of the tone-poem is a simple one. It opens with a depiction of the sea. In a second section Sadko is cast adrift and descends to the realm of the Sea King. This is followed by the celebration of the marriage of Sadko and Volkhova, the revelry provoking a storm. The work ends with the sea calm once more.
The opera Mlada was written in 1889 and 1890 and first staged in St Petersburg on 1 November 1892. The libretto was extended and developed by Rimsky-Korsakov from an earlier collaborative composition, an opera-ballet, tackled together with Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui and Minkus in 1872. Here the composer returns to ancient pagan Russian legend in a work of some extravagance.
Mlada herself, a dream-figure, is betrothed to Yaromir, but at her wedding is murdered through a poisoned ring, given her by Voyslava, daughter of a prince who wishes to bring about Yaromir’s downfall, a devotee of the infernal goddess Morena. The intervention of the spectral Mlada prevents the embraces of Yaromir and Voyslava, who is eventually killed by the man she had hoped to deceive and claimed by the goddess Morena. The suite from Mlada includes a Russian dance, Redowa, a Lithuanian dance, an exotic Indian dance, part of the dream scene in which the truth is revealed to Yaromir, and a final processional.
The Golden Cockerel, Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, generally known under the French version of its title, Le Coq d’or, was completed in September 1907, but not staged until 1909. The work had aroused the suspicion of the authorities in St Petersburg, and the composer had, in any case, been on uneasy terms with the royal family. The Tsar himself had personally expressed his dissatisfaction with the completed opera-ballet Mlada and the opera Christmas Eve and had asked for something more cheerful than the opera Sadko for the Imperial Theatres. To The Golden Cockerel there was the added objection that the piece might be regarded as subversive, a satire of the Tsar himself and his handling of the war with Japan.
Based on a poem by Pushkin, the story tells of the miraculous golden cockerel, given by the Astrologer to old King Dodon, a bird that crows at any sign of danger. At the start of the opera, introduced by the Astrologer as a moral tale, the King and his council discuss how to deal with imminent foreign attack. The King’s elder son suggests staying safe in the capital city to talk the matter over, while the enemy waits outside, a proposal that wins the applause of the council. The King’s younger son suggests that the army should be disbanded and then suddenly mobilised again, to take the enemy by surprise, a plan that is also welcomed. The Astrologer’s answer is the golden cockerel, a bird to give warning of danger, a gift for which he will claim a future reward. In the end the King, defeated in battle, takes the exotic Queen Shemakhan, as his wife. The Astrologer re-appears to claim payment, demanding the hand of the Queen Shemakhan. The King angrily refuses and strikes the magician dead, to be killed in his turn by the golden cockerel.
Important themes of the opera include the melody of the golden cockerel and the more exotic theme associated with the Queen, who later is to test the King’s manliness in ridiculous fashion by forcing him to dance, and to return with him in processional triumph to his palace. The Wedding March and the Introduction to the opera (not included in the Suite) were first performed in a concert in St Petersburg in February 1908, in a programme that included the first performance of Faun and Shepherdess by Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Igor Stravinsky. The opera was staged only after the composer’s death, in Moscow on 7 October 1909. The Suite, described as Four Musical Pictures, was compiled by Glazunov and the composer’s son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.