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ClassicsOnline Home » RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Sheherazade / The Tale of Tsar Saltan
certainly does not lack excitement.
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)
Sheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Musical Pictures, Op. 57
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 defb1ess 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
he 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 disturbances 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 symphonic suite Sheherazade was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov
in the winter of 1887- 1888, taking as its literary inspiration excerpts from Tales of the
Arabian Nights, the fascinating series of stories told by the beautiful Sheherazade in an
effort to postpone her execution at the orders of her royal master. The choice of subject
exemplifies the attraction that the neighbouring cultures of Islam has had over Russian
composers in search of exotic material. In his own description of Sheherazade
Rimsky-Korsakov rebuts the notion that his themes are, in general, connected solely to
particular events in the Arabian Nights, although the sinuous oriental solo violin melody
is associated with the story-teller herself. The thematic material, however, appears in
different forms to convey differing moods and pictures. Other ideas had been suggested by
the sea, Sinbad's ship, Prince Kalender, the Prince and Princess, the Festival in Baghdad
and the ship dashed against the rock with the bronze rider on it. The composer himself
described the suite as a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental
character. The musical material, whatever its narrative significance, is, in any case,
worked out symphonically. His original intention had been to give the movements the
uninformative titles Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. He was later persuaded to add
programmatic titles, which he later regretted and withdrew.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan largely during the summer of
1899, the libretto based by Vladimir Ivanovich Byelsky on the poem by Pushkin, the
centenary of whose birth it celebrates. The work was first performed in Moscow by a
private opera company, a successor to the company established by Mamontov, who had been
imprisoned for debts incurred in the construction of railways. It was well received,
although a later private production in St. Petersburg proved unsatisfactory.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, a
stylised fairy-tale, tells the story of the marriage of Tsar Saltan to the youngest of
three sisters, who bears him a son, Prince Guidon. Saltan, absent at the wars, is told by
the Tsarina's jealous sisters, that she has borne him a monster, and commands that she and
the child be put in a barrel and sent out to sea. Mother and son are eventually stranded
on a desert island, where Guidon, now coming to manhood, saves a swan from attack by a
kite, breaking the power of a sorcerer. As the Tsarina and Guidon sleep, the city of
Ledenets appears on the island, and Guidon is welcomed by the people, released from
enchantment, as their prince. The city has three wonders, a magic squirrel that eats nuts
of gold and sings, thirty-three magic knights, who emerge sometimes from the sea, and the
Swan-Princess, whom Guidon had rescued and who eventually reveals herself to him in human
form. Saltan, hearing of these wonders, sails to the island and is amazed to find there
his beloved wife and a prince who greets him as father. The famous Flight of the Bumblebee
is heard in Act III of the opera, when Guidon, transformed with the help of the
Swan-Princess into a bee, stings his wicked aunts and the old witch who has helped them.
The Musical Pictures from the opera, which were performed before the first performance of
the opera itself, include the music for the departure of Tsar Saltan, an introduction to
Act I, music from later in the Act, as the Tsarina and her baby are sent out to sea in a
barrel, and the musical picture of the three wonder of Ledenets.
Philharmonia Orchestra, London
The Philharmonia Orchestra was established in London in 1945 by
Walter Legge and gave its first concert under Sir Thomas Beecham in October of the same
year. Other conductors associated with the orchestra included Otto Klemperer and Carlo
Maria Giulini, with guest conductors that included Toscanini and Richard strauss. On the
withdrawal of Walter Legge in 1964, the orchestra re-formed itself as the New
Philharmonia, its first concert under the new name conducted by Klemperer. Herbert von
Karajan served as principal conductor from 1950 to 1959, with Klemperer from 1955 until
his death in 1973, and Riccardo Muti from 1973 until1982, followed by Giuseppe sinopoli.
In 1977 the Philharmonia resumed its original name, continuing to occupy a distinguished
place in the concert life of London and in the recording studio.
Mexican conductor Enrique Batiz has enjoyed considerable international success, with
performances throughout the world, in particular in Europe and the Americas. From 1983 to
1989 he was Musical Director of the Mexico City Phi1harmonic Orchestra, preceded by a
period from 1971 to 1983 as director of the Mexican State Symphony Orchestra, a position
he resumed in 1990. Since 1984 he has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra in London. Of some hundred digital recordings, some 32 have been
made with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, nine with the London Symphony Orchestra and
twelve with the London Philharmonic, in addition to recordings with the Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra and with his own orchestras in Mexico. He remains one of the
leading conductors of Latin America.
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