Le coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel) – Suite from the Opera

by Max Derrickson

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
(Born in Tikhvin on March 18, 1844; died in Lyubensk, Russia on June 21, 1908)

Suite from the Opera Le coq d’or (The Golden Cockerel)
1. Tsar Dodon in His Palace
2. Tsar Dodon on the Battlefield
3. Tsar Dodon as the Guest of the Queen of Shemakah
4. The Wedding and Lamentable End of Dodon

Near the very end of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov had decided to hang up his pen after finishing his 14th opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronija (1905).   But then Russia’s political world began to disintegrate all around him.  First, the increasingly imperialistic Tsar Nicholas II, much against popular support, essentially pushed Japan into beginning a war and Russia lost miserably (1904-1905), then, civilian unrest boiled over into the massacre of Bloody Sunday in 1905, when Russian troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators killing more than 1,000.  In reaction to that horrible day, Rimsky-Korsakov’s cherished students at the St. Petersburg Conservatory demonstrated and were expelled, and this was soon followed by his own dismissal.  All of it compelled the veteran Nationalist composer to take action – through music.  He became a musical dissident with one last opera, The Golden Cockerel (Le coq d’or, as it is usually referred to in French), completing it in 1907.

Rimsky-Korsakov built his opera on an intriguing poem, The Tale of the Golden Cockerel, written in 1834 by Alexander Pushkin (1789-1837), which itself was based on two stories from Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving.  Pushkin’s poem is written in a folk style, giving it the burnished aura of a legend.  The tale depicts an oafish Russian Tsar who goes off to battle for no good reason and comes to tragedy.  Pushkin was a beloved Russian hero for audiences of the early 20th Century, and hence a potentially “safe” source for a musical dissident to hide his opera behind.  Pushkin’s tale of a bully Tsar who sheds the blood of innocents inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to put the tale to music in a way that – with Pushkin’s fame to protect it – he hoped might let it slip past the censors and give his countrymen moral support in their current misery.  But the censor’s were too clever, and the opera was banned until after the composer’s death, premiering with changes in 1909, just as the Revolution was beginning to gain momentum in Russia.

The Royal censors could see the obvious allusions to present day troubles.  The tale’s Tsar Dodon is a fool – Tsar Nicholas II’s recent, tragic bumblings with Japan and his populous were anything but wise.  Tsar Dodon is so stupid that he’s duped by a Magician who gives him a magic golden rooster that is promised to keep watch for enemy invaders.  As payment, the Tsar promises to grant the Magician one wish.  His own scheming appears to lead the Tsar into an unprovoked war with his beautiful neighbor, Queen Shemakah, and magic turns things against him.  He’s woefully defeated by the Queen, but somehow deludes himself into believing the Queen wants to marry him.  The wedding turns deadly as the Magician returns to claim the Queen as his wish, but he is instead killed, and the Tsar is pecked to death by the golden cockerel as a gruesome ending to a fantastical melodrama.  When the chaos subsides, the rooster and the Queen have gone on their merry way.  Pushkin’s poem offers the tale as both a “Whodunit” and a lesson in morality, and Rimsky-Korsakov follows the same strategy in his opera.

The story’s fairytale nature allows Rimsky-Korsakov to incorporate lots of atmospheric, exotically colored musical passages, with elements of Orientalism such as Arabic sounding melodies.  In particular, for many scenes of the Tsar and the Magician, he uses the whole […] first exploited by one of Russia’s other music heroes, Mikhail Glinka, in his second opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (also based on another mock-epic by Pushkin), where the […] duplicitous characters.  For Russian composers who followed, this scale became a musical code for evil, scheming characters.  There was no coincidence that it appeared in association with the main characters in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel.

The Suite to the opera was crafted from the full opera, shortly after the composer’s death, by Rimsky-Korsakov’s son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, together with […] – making for the perfect, and sinister, fairytale atmosphere.  Tasteful percussion moments dot the second movement along with many exotic instrumental combinations.  Movement three is especially lovely, a kind of Scheherazade remake, but no less enchanting, and filled with lyricism.  Also listen for the heavy use of the […]  And, of course, everything ends very badly for Dodon, as Rimsky-Korsakov ends the music with growling […].