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Views And Reviews: Rimsky-Korsakov's Suite “The Snow Maiden”

…Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral genius seemed tailor-made for ballet, then becoming the height of fashion. Yet, curiously, he opted for the world of opera…

Paul Serotsky introduces us to “The Snow Maiden’’ - the third of the composer's 15 operas.

How would, say, an ordinary naval lieutenant, with no formal musical qualifications, land a musical professorship? Well, suppose that he happens to compose as a hobby, and some “big-shot” academics just happen to discover his “practical compositions”. This isn’t an idea for a corny 1930’s Hollywood musical, but actually how Rimsky-Korsakov got his big break, in 1871 becoming Professor of Practical Composition (what else?) at St. Petersburg Conservatoire. Mind you, it helped that his compositions screamed, “Here’s a raw talent to be reckoned with!” In spite of the fabulous “Antar” (his Second Symphony), top of the pile came “Sadko”. This utterly mesmerising – and bewilderingly neglected – little masterpiece first revealed the real radiance of his amazing aural imagination.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral genius seemed tailor-made for ballet, then becoming the height of fashion. Yet, curiously, he opted for the world of opera. Luckily, he hedged his bets – even in the politically-motivated “Le Coq d’Or” his choice of a fantastical, fairy-tale scenario ensured ample opportunity for that aural imagination to run riot. For “The Snow Maiden” (“Snegourochka”, 1881), the third of his 15 operas, Rimsky-Korsakov elaborated Ostrovsky’s version of the tale. He beefed up the pantheistic angle, explicitly involving mythical beings like Frost and the Spring Fairy. Their unlikely union – which produced Snegourochka – incensed the sun-god Yarilo, who promptly withheld his sunshine, resulting in perpetual winter. Then, as so often in operas, things started to get complicated! (1)

However, there’s nothing complicated about the concert suite, whose four short movements provide an undemanding, wholly enchanting quarter of an hour. But, before you succumb to the enchantment, one more small point: Professor Rimsky-Korsakov was forever cautioning restraint in the use of percussion. Even today, his bewitching and often subtle use of these seductive side-arms remains an object-lesson to certain others!

1. Introduction. Rimsky-Korsakov’s revelatory encounter with Wagner’s “Ring” may have been eight years in the future, yet here already was music bristling with leitmotif. However, the crafty weaving of short phrases into his fabric pales against the shifting, iridescent colours he bestows upon the threads themselves. As humming strings stir the music out of the murk, we hear icicles etched by piccolo and violins. Then, in the climax, these same phrases are warmed and expanded by the glow of horns and cellos. Thus are Frost and Spring represented, the one glacial, the other mellow, opposites appositely united by a common theme!

2. Dance of the Birds. Later in the Prologue comes this charming, tuneful and infectiously cheerful song for ladies’ chorus and solo soprano. Sadly, concert performances rarely retain the vocal part(2) but, looking on the bright side, at least we hear more clearly the animated twittering and chirruping of Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic orchestral aviary.

3. Cortège (Act II). Also known as “The Procession of Tsar Berendey”, this is a far cry from what we normally expect of a cortège. Its merry march is constantly disrupted by dithering dynamic lurches and brutal banging. Why? Snegourochka, summoned before the Tsar on a trumped-up charge of boyfriend-poaching, is filled with trepidation. Her fears are compounded by boyars, bodyguards – and musicians “playing intricate music on tympani”. Rimsky-Korsakov’s music views the scene from her perplexed perspective.

4. Dance of the Tumblers (Act III). In this rightly celebrated number, the “tumblers” are actually “skomorokhi”, who were troupes of multi-talented outdoor entertainers. Seemingly in a salute to their skills, Rimsky-Korsakov casts his dance in a classical sonata-structure, complete with development section, invigoratingly intensified reprise, and a veritable whirlwind of a coda. Yet, even here, the musical magician’s wand busily showers spells that summon sparkling sound. Mark my words, it’s all so intoxicating that one day they’ll slap a “Government Health Warning” on it, so enjoy it while ye may.

© Paul Serotsky

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