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Suite from The Snow Maiden

About the Work

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Quick Look Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andrew Litton, conductor/Yuja Wang, piano, plays Higdon Dec. 3 - 5, 2009
© Paul Horsley
Familiar to concert audiences for Sheherazade, the Capriccio espagnole, and The Flight of the Bumblebee, during his lifetime Rimsky-Korsakov was known chiefly through his operas. Between 1868 and 1905 he wrote no fewer than 17 major works for the stage, a few of which are remembered by their titles, at least--May Night, The Barber of Baghdad, Mozart and Salieri, The Snow Maiden. These operas rarely appear in Western theaters, but the music from them is often so powerful and coloristic that conductors can hardly resist excerpting them, if only to revel in the rich hues of this composer's orchestral mastery.

Rimsky-Korsakov was first and foremost a pioneer of orchestral sound. This found expression in his Principles of Orchestration (published posthumously, in 1913), which is illustrated with more than 300 musical examples from his own works and is still used as a textbook in conservatories around the world. His innovations in color, texture and sonority helped inspire the experiments of Ravel, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and others. But this mastery was not confined to his orchestra scores, it runs through his operas as well, which contain some of his finest music.

The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) began its life as a "springtime fairy-tale" by Alexander Orlovsky, the 1873 premiere of which featured 19 numbers of incidental music by Tchaikovsky. Written in verse, the play lent itself naturally to an operatic setting; Rimsky-Korsakov's four-act opera with prologue was first performed at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater in 1882. Among the original cast was the bass Fyodor Stravinsky, Igor's father, in the role of Grandfather Frost.

As in many Russian folk tales (Stravinsky's The Firebird comes to mind), The Snow Maiden includes both real humans and imaginary or fairy-tale figures (Bonny Spring, Grandfather Frost, Forest Sprite). The latter chiefly occupy the Prologue, but the Snow Maiden "crosses over" into the world of humans. The libretto recounts a meandering love story with plenty of opportunities for set pieces such as dances, strongly lyrical arias and ensembles, and large-scale hymns and choruses glorifying the Tsar.

Introduction: Beautiful Spring, which opens the Prologue, presents the Land of the Berendeyans at midnight: A full moon illuminates a landscape of snow-covered peaks, thick forests, and a river. In the center is Tsar Berendey's palace, constructed of elaborately carved wood. A cock crows. It is spring, but the birth of the Snow Maiden 15 years ago has brought perpetual winter to the land.

Shortly afterward, Bonny Spring enters with her entourage of birds--cranes, geese, ducks, rooks, magpies, starlings, skylarks--whose shivering reminds her of the chill brought about by her dalliance with Grandfather Frost. The birth of their love-child, Snow Maiden, angered the sun-god Yarilo. Bonny Spring implores the birds to warm themselves, which they do with the Dance of the Birds. Some play instruments, others sing (or chirp), still others dance.

"The Procession of Tsar Berendey" (Act 2), a stately and mysterious slow march, accompanies the gathering of the villagers to listen to the Tsar's decree. The Tsar must banish Mizgir, a young man who has reneged on his betrothal promise; but the decree is interrupted by the arrival of the Snow Maiden. All marvel at her beauty. She has not yet loved, and the Tsar offers a reward for any man who can make her love him--knowing that if she falls in love she will melt, thus ending the long winter.

Act 3 takes place in a forest clearing: Amid general celebrations of spring, the villagers sing and dance. At the end of the festivities the Tsar asks for one more dance, and in rush the jesters for the vigorous Dance of the Skomorokhi, one of Rimsky-Korsakov's best-known show-stoppers.

In Act 4, Bonny Spring grants Snow Maiden permission to love, and she professes her love to Mizgir. Immediately she melts, and Mirgir throws himself in the lake in despair (his punishment, perhaps, for breaking his promise). The spell is broken, and the land blossoms into glorious spring.