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Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)


Flight of the Bumble Bee
from the Tale of the Tsar Saltan

Rimsky Korsakov began his career in the navy, and music was only a hobby. At 27, still in the navy, he was surprised to be offered the job of professor of composition at St. Petersburg conservatory of music. He brought into Russian music a taste for the exotic and fairy tales, which continued into the works of Stravinsky. At the end of the 1880s Rimsky-Korsakov embarked on a series of operas on fantastic tales, one of which is “The Tale of Tsar Sultan”. It is based on a poem by Pushkin and was first performed in 1900. The best-known orchestral moment in the score is "The Flight of the Bumblebee", which describes Prince Guidon, magically transformed into a bumblebee, flying back to the court of his father the Tsar.

Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36

Like many Russian composers in the late 19th century, Rimsky-Korsakov began as an amateur. From a musical family, his first job was as a naval officer, and no-one was more surprised than he was when, at the age of 27, he was offered the post of professor of composition at the St.Petersburg conservatoire.

The overture "The Great Russian Easter" was written in 1888, at the same time as his well-known suite for orchestra Scheherezade. A feature the work shares with Scheherezade is its use of short violin cadenzas to separate some of its sections. The tunes are largely from the Russian orthodox liturgy, and Rimsky-Korsakov includes several biblical quotations (too long to reproduce here) in the score to guide the listener as to his intent.

The opening alternates two themes: the first is very solemn and based on plainsong, while the second is rather more relaxed, and is first heard on solo cello accompanied by a shimmer of harp, solo violin and flutes. The main allegro which follows has a very lively and syncopated theme, and the mood builds up to one of exultation. A calmer melody also appears - this is a famous Russian Easter chant known as the obikhod - "Christ is Risen". All these themes appear as the overture works up to its climax, and the obikhod appears "amid the trumpet blasts and bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda". As the composer says in his autobiography "The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of the morn of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture."

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