Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture

Context

Completed in the summer of 1888, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed his ‘Bright Holiday’ work Russian Easter Festival Overture ready for its premiere in December 1888. It was dedicated to the memory of two of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian contemporaries, Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin, who were also part of the Russian group of composers known as ‘The Five’. This concert overture was the third, and last, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s exceptional orchestral works, the other two being Capriccio Espagnol (1887) and Scheherazade (1888). The composer described these three works as:

“[Closing] this period of my activity, at the end of which my orchestration had reached a considerable degree of virtuosity and bright sonority without Wagner’s influence, within the limits of the usual make-up of Glinka’s orchestra.”

As the title suggests, the Russian Easter Festival Overture is a work that attempts to show the contrast between the ancient wonder of Isaiah’s proclamation with the almost-Pagan celebration of Easter in modern times. Rimsky-Korsakov selected a number of themes from the Obikhod – a collection of Russian Orthodox canticles. This was the first major work by a Russian composer to be based entirely on themes from the Obikhod, which was a rather controversial choice. This led to the Tsar Alexander III being so offended by this choice, that he banned the work from ever being played in his presence.

The canticles were used so that the overture would have “reminiscences of the ancient prophecy of the Gospel story, and a general picture of the Easter service with its pagan merry-making.” Essentially, Rimsky-Korsakov was looking to question the audience’s actions against those in Easter-related biblical tales, and to be able to achieve this to his standards he believed that the listener would have needed to attend an Easter morning service in a cathedral with a wealth of different people.

 

The Music

In the programme for the premiere performance of this work Rimsky-Korsakov provided text and Bible verses from Psalm 68 and six from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16. However, Rimsky-Korsakov did not explicitly explain his intentions by providing this prose for the listener, he decided it would be best to allow the “tones to speak.”

Russian Easter Festival Overture Svetlyi prazdnik – or ‘Bright Holiday’ is a vivid first-hand account of an Easter morning service. Rimsky-Korsakov described the work as “not in a domestic chapel, but in a cathedral thronged with people from every walk of life, and with several priests conducting the cathedral service.”

Rimsky-Korsakov uses three original chants: ‘Let God Arise!’/ ‘An Angel Wailed’ / ‘Christ Has Risen from the Dead’. Each of these themes are represented through creative orchestrations by the composer, for instance the final chant is proclaimed through fanfare trumpets, bold timpani rolls and a thrilling fast-paced coda section.

The overture begins with a long introduction, which the composer described as a inspiration of Isaiah’s prophetic words concerning the future resurrection of the Messiah. Although this slow introduction is quite solemn, when it soon transitions into the ‘Allegro’ section, the music is suddenly joyous and celebratory. The idea of bell-tolling, matched with the trumpet blasts reinforce this merry feel to the music throughout.

This work largely follows a sonata-allegro form, and highlights an array of soloists including violin, trumpet, flute, horn and clarinet. The work is full of harmonic colour, fascinating time signature changes – being one of the only orchestral works to properly make use of 2/1 and 3/1 time. The timbral and textural changes are the backbone of this work, with the full tutti sections representing a strong and powerful force, and the much sparser sections being a fine representation of feelings of nostalgia, mindfulness and peace.

The canticles that Rimsky-Korsakov chose for this work were certainly not at random. The chosen ones were popular with Russian audiences, and most had a deep-rooted sense of nationality intertwined in them. Thus making this work a multi-faceted work that appealed to a wide-range of people, even with the composer’s very specific description of listener. Rimsky-Korsakov himself was interested in religion and nationalism, so this work is most likely a very personal account of how he perceives the Easter holiday.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s extensive use of brass and percussion throughout his work adds to the ethereal and bold sections. Trumpet fanfares are heard multiple times throughout this work, adding to the overall excitement in this musical description of the Easter holiday. Easter is also referred to as ‘The Bright Holiday’ in Russia, as it offers hope to those who may need it. This is a common feeling throughout the Russian Easter Festival Overture, especially at the end where the whole ensemble comes together to create a huge celebratory sound to represent the ‘finale’ if you will, of the Easter holiday.

 

Happy Reading!

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