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Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36

About the Work

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Quick Look Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Itzhak Perlman, violin Feb. 5 - 7, 2004
© Richard Freed
Rimsky-Korsakov composed his Russian Easter Overture between August 1887 and April 1888, and conducted the premiere in St. Petersburg on December 15 of the latter year. Sir Ernest MacMillan conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work on January 23, 1938; the most recent one, at Wolf Trap on July 26, 1996, was conducted by Leonard Slatkin

The score calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Duration, 15 minutes.
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In the Russian Orthodox church, Easter is not only celebrated on different date (usually) from that on which it is observed in the West, but also in a different way, which Rimsky-Korsakov undertook to represent in his Russian Easter Overture. The piece, whose actual Russian title is Svetliy prazdnik (“Bright Holiday”), the traditional Russian name for Easter, reflects his fascination with the legends and rituals of pagan and early Christian Russia. In place of the serenity of chaste expressions of joy we encounter in Western Easter music, there is an utterly different form of exaltation here, expressed in terms of sheer vitality and visceral excitement as well as mystery and solemnity. It is a different world, ablaze with colors and lights, set off by passages of brooding darkness. It is awesome, majestic, imposing in its austerity in one moment, and in the next bursting with a spirit of primitive energy and revelry no less dazzling than the carnival scenes in Petrushka. (Indeed, we might say that no work of Rimsky-Korsakov's reminds us more forcefully that he was Stravinsky's teacher.)

The work is based on actual liturgical themes which Rimsky-Korsakov found in a collection of old Russian Orthodox canticles called the Obikhod . As preface to the score, he quoted portions of the 68th Psalm and the 16th chapter of Mark, and added some lines of his own which make reference to a more primitive and more universal vernal symbolism, in keeping with his own basically pantheistic outlook. In his autobiography, My Musical Life, he provided his own comprehensive program note:

This 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 Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture. . . . The rather lengthy slow introduction . . . on the theme “Let God arise” [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody “An angel cried out” [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah 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—in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro —the theme “Let them also that hate Him flee before Him”—led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ's matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dancelike tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton's rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest's reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, “Christ is arisen,” which forms a sort of subsidiary part of the overture, appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.

The Russian Easter was the last in a series of three especially brilliant orchestral works which Rimsky introduced, in St. Petersburg concerts he conducted himself, within barely a full year—works which, unlike many of his earlier ones, he was never inclined to revise or brush up in later years. The Capriccio espagnol , Op. 34, received its premiere on December 17, 1887, the symphonic suite Scheherazade , Op. 35, on November 3, 1888, and the present work just six weeks later. These three compositions, Rimsky noted in My Musical Life , “close 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.” From that point on, his creative activity was focused almost entirely on opera—in which his mastery of the orchestra was to provide him with his greatest strength.