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ClassicsOnline Home » RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Snow Maiden / Golden Cockerel / Mlada
"Donald Johanos.... revels in all this"
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)
Snow Maiden (Snegurochka): Suite
The Golden Cockerel (Le coq d'or): Suite Mlada: Suite
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended a naval
career, following the example of his elder brother. He showed some musical ability even as
a very small child, but at the age of 14 he entered the Naval Cadet College in St.
Petersburg in pursuit of a more immediately attractive ambition. The city, in any case,
offered musical opportunities. He continued piano lessons, but, more important than this,
he was able to enjoy the opera and attend his first concerts.
It was in 1861, the year before he completed his course at the
Naval College, that Rimsky-Korsakov met Balakirev, a musician who was to become an
important influence on him, as he was on the young army officers Mussorgsky and Cui, who
already formed part of his circle. The meeting had a far-reaching effect on
Rimsky-Korsakov's career, although in 1862 he set sail as a midshipman on a cruise that
was to keep him away from Russia for the next two and a half years.
On his return in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov fell again under the
influence of Balakirev. On shore there was more time for music and the encouragement he
needed for a serious application to music that resulted in compositions in which he showed
his early ability as an orchestrator and his deftness in the use of Russian themes, a gift
that Balakirev did much to encourage as part of his campaign to create a truly Russian
form of music. In 1871 he took a position as professor of instrumentation and composition
at St. Petersburg Conservatory and the following year he resigned his Commission in the
navy, to become a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands, a position created for him through
personal and family influence.
Rimsky-Korsakov's subsequent career was a distinguished one. At
the same time he accepted the duty of completing and often orchestrating works left
unfinished by other composers of the new Russian school. As early as 1869 Dargomizhsky had
left him the task of completing the opera The Stone
Guest. Twenty years later he was to perform similar tasks for the music of
Mussorgsky and for Borodin, both of whom had left much undone at the time of their deaths.
Relations with Balakirev were not always easy and
Rimsky-Korsakov was to become associated with Belyayev and his schemes for the publication
of new Russian music, a connection that Balakirev could only see as disloyalty. There were
other influences on his composition, particularly with his first hearing of Wagner's Ring
in 1889 and consequent renewed attention to opera, after a brief period of depression and
silence, the result of illness and death in his family.
Rimsky-Korsakov was involved in the troubles of 1905, when he
sided with the Conservatory students, joining with some colleagues in a public demand for
political reform, an action that brought his dismissal from the institution, to which he
was able to return when his pupil and friend Glazunov became director the following year.
He died in 1908.
The opera Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) is based on a play by
Ostrovsky, itself following a Russian folk-tale. 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 10th 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.
The Golden Cockerel,
Rimsky-Korsakov's last opera, generally known under the French version of its title, 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 on
the Tsar himself and his handling of the war with Japan. Based on a poem by Push kin, 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 Shemakha, as his wife. The Astrologer re-appears to claim payment, demanding
the hand of the Queen of 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
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 7th October
The opera Mlada
was written in 1889 and 1890 and first staged in St. Petersburg on 1st 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 again 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
Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
The Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava), the
oldest symphonic ensemble in Slovakia, was founded in 1929. The orchestra's first
conductor was Frantiek Dyk and over the past sixty years it has worked under the
direction of several prominent Czech and Slovak conductors. The orchestra has made many
recordings for the Naxos label ranging from the ballet music of Tchaikovsky to more modern
works by composers such as Copland, Britten and Prokofiev. For Marco Polo the orchestra
has recorded works by Glazunov, Gliere, Rubinstein and other late romantic composers and
film music of Honegger, Bliss, Ibert and Khachaturian.
The American conductor Donald Johanos was educated at Eastman
School of Music, with further study in London, Amsterdam, Vienna and Salzburg, working
under Ormandy, Szell, Klemperer and van Beinum. In 1958 he won the Netherlands Radio Union
Conductors Competition and spent two summers in Holland conducting the Netherlands Radio
Orchestra. In 1962 he was appointed music director and principal conductor of the Dallas
Symphony Orchestra, after an earlier period as assistant and resident conductor with the
orchestra, and in 1970 associate conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, at the
same time continuing to work with the Dallas Orchestra as Conductor Emeritus. In 1979 he
became music director and conductor of the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, a position he
still retains. Donald Johanos enjoys an active career as a guest conductor in Europe, Asia
and the Americas, his engagements having included conducting at the Paris Opera and the
Metropolitan Opera House in New York for Nureyev and the Paris Opera Ballet, appearances
with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as in China, Hong Kong and North and South
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