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Dubinushka, Op. 62

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
Dubinushka , whose title may be translated as “The Little Oak Stick,” was composed in 1905; the first performance was conducted by Alexander Siloti on November 18 of that year, in St. Petersburg. In the following year Rimsky-Korsakov revised the score to its present proportions. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performance of this piece prior to the present concerts was conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich on the West Lawn of the United States Capitol on July 4, 1979.

The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings. Duration, 4 minutes.
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Rimsky-Korsakov, who in general directed his descriptive efforts to fairy tales and historical figures, was not a chronicler of his people's woes, as Shostakovich was to be in the middle of the 20th century, this brief piece stands as a document of a critical moment in his country's history and, by no means incidentally, of the composer's solidarity with those who took great risks in opposing the repressive policies of the Tsarist government.

The abortive revolution of 1905 was set off on “Bloody Sunday” in January of that year, when a crowd of some 200,000—workers and their families, carrying respectful icons and pictures of the Tsar—marched peaceably to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, to petition the Tsar for relief. The Imperial family was not even in residence at the time, but armed troops greeted the marchers with rifle fire and many were killed. In the wake of that event workers' rebellions broke out in many Russian cities. Some 42 years later Shostakovich would compose his expansive Symphony No. 11 on “The Year 1905,” with movement headings referring to specific incidents (and, in this case, parallels drawn between that year's events in Russia and those that occurred in Hungary just before Shostakovich composed that symphony). Rimsky, at that time the most revered member of the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory (which now bears his name), noted in his autobiography that political ferment seized all St. Petersburg. The Conservatory, too, was affected; its students were in turmoil. Meetings were called. . . . The Russian Musical Society also began to meddle. Special meetings of the Art Council and the Directorate became the order of the day. I [as a faculty member] was chosen a member of the committee for adjusting differences with agitated students. . . . The rights of the students had to be championed. Disputes and wrangling grew more and more violent. If one were to believe the conservatives among the professors and the Directorate of the St. Petersburg branch, I myself was possibly the very head of the revolutionary movement among the students. . .

Open letters from Rimsky and various others were published in the newspapers. Rimsky was dismissed from his Conservatory post. Then he began hearing from people in “every corner of Russia,” supporting him. The Conservatory students presented performances of his opera Kashchei the Deathless (conducted by Glazunov) and his orchestral works. He was saluted by “various societies and unions . . . and inflammatory speeches were made.” By the end of October a nationwide strike erupted: more demonstrations, more carnage. Glazunov, who had resigned from the Conservatory faculty when Rimsky was dropped, and Rimsky himself were invited back, but Rimsky found the atmosphere impossible. Glazunov managed to stay on, and eventually became the institution's director. In the meantime, both Rimsky and Glazunov composed orchestral pieces based on well known old folk songs—Glazunov's on the one we know as the “Song of the Volga Boatman,” Rimsky's on Dubinushka , which had long been connected with revolutionary movements and for some time was actually prohibited. (The great basso Fyodor Chaliapin made if familiar to Western listeners.) Both pieces were performed in the November 1905 concert mentioned above. “Exactly as much as Glazunov's piece proved magnificent,” Rimsky recalled, just so much did my Dubinushka prove short and insignificant, even though sufficiently noisy.” A few months later he expanded the piece, and indicated an optional chorus.

The four-minute piece on which so many words have been expended here is a robust, swaggering march, with Rimsky's characteristic directness and charm to make it vastly enjoyable, and yet at the same time it is clearly an expression of defiance and resolve. Without monumentalizing the issues, it is a striking document of a pivotal time in Russia's history.