Russian Easter Overture
Length: c. 14 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 7, 1925, with Willem van Hoogstraten conducting
Rimsky-Korsakov is one of those major 19th-century musical personages, honored to the point of deification in his own time and for a number of years thereafter, who has been shunted aside. More often than not, he now tends to be described – elsewhere than in Russia, where his honor remains intact (the Kirov Opera in particular gives his operas the occasional airing beyond home turf) – as “historically important,” “influential,” and, for better or worse, “the composer of Scheherazade.”
To be sure, Rimsky lacks the sensational life-story (and the neuroticism) of his fellows on this program, with no small part in his downgrading played by one of the composers most beholden to him: his star pupil, Igor Stravinsky, whose writings on the subject of his old master became increasingly forgetful, eventually tart, and finally dismissive as he (Stravinsky) grew into crabbed old age.
Our loss, for Rimsky is a terrific entertainer and a much more radical creative figure than one would gather from familiarity only with Scheherazade’s wanly pretty tunes. The real Rimsky stands up proudly in his Russian Easter Festival, with its bold harmonies and blazing sonorities: music that sparked the imaginations of the two generations of Russian composers who studied with him, including Liadov, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Arensky, Glazunov, Miaskovsky, and, yes, Stravinsky, while leaving its imprint abroad as well, on Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi, to name only the most luminous.
In Russian tradition, Easter is referred to as “the bright holiday,” and it is this nomenclature that Rimsky-Korsakov evokes in his musical marriage of Christian ritual and pagan enthusiasm; an ode to nature’s blazing rebirth after winter’s dark somnolence.
The Russian Easter Festival was started early in 1888 and completed some eight months later, at the same time as Scheherazade. The overture was presented to the public just before Christmas of ’88 by the Russian Symphony Orchestra of St. Petersburg, of which Rimsky had recently been appointed chief conductor.
The following is taken from the composer’s own analysis, as it appears in his posthumously published autobiography, My Musical Life:
“During the summer of 1888 I finished The Bright Holiday [as he would usually refer to it], an Easter Overture on themes from the Obikhod [a collection of Russian Orthodox Church music]... The lengthy, slow introduction... on the theme ‘Let God Arise!,’ alternating with the ecclesiastical theme ‘An Angel Cried,’ appeared to me in the beginning as Isaiah’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the resurrection...
“The beginning of the Allegro, ‘Let them also that hate Him flee before Him,’ leads to the holiday mood of the Orthodox church service on Christ’s matins. The solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells, alternating with an evocation of the sexton’s rapid reading and the chant of the priest’s reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, ‘Christ is risen,’ which is the subsidiary part of the Overture, appears amid the trumpet-blasts and bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.
“In this Overture were thus combined reminiscences of the ancient prophecy, of the gospel narrative, and also a general picture of the Easter service with its pagan merrymaking. The capering and leaping of King David before the Ark, do they not give expression to the same mood as the idol-worshippers’ dance? Surely, the Russian Obikhod is dance music of the church. And do not the waving beards of the priests and sextons clad in white vestments and surplices, intoning ‘Beautiful Easter’ transport the imagination to pagan times? And all those Easter loaves and the glowing tapers! How far a cry from the philosophic teachings of Christ! The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, the transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning is what I was eager to reproduce in my Overture.”
In keeping with the Romantic era’s preoccupation with a program (i.e., story line) for non-verbal music, Rimsky decided to ask a “real writer” (in his estimation) to provide the first published edition of the overture with a poetic scenario, commissioning a friend, one Count Golyenishchev-Kutuzov, to execute the task. But the composer regarded the result as too precious to convey the “primitive energy” of the piece. Thus, Rimsky set to work himself on a program, a marvel of discursiveness, heavily laced with quotations from the Old and New Testaments, but ending in a blaze of verbal glory that matches that of the music’s exultant concluding section: “‘Resurrexit!’ sings the chorus of heavenly angels to the sound of the archangels’ trumpets and the fluttering of the wings of seraphim. ‘Resurrexit!’ sing the priests in the temple, amid clouds of incense, by the light of innumerable candles, to the chiming of triumphant bells.”
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.