Rimsky-Korsakov – Russian Easter Festival Overture op. 36

by Max Derrickson

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – 1844 – 1908

Russian Easter Festival Overture op. 36

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, in many respects, was the dean of Russian composers in the 19th Century.  His championing of Russian composers (indeed he is mostly responsible for Mussorgsky’s best loved works achieving such popularity), his advocacy of the Nationalist movement, his influence as a composer and teacher to virtually every Russian musician of the time, and the high quality of his own compositions together captured the spirit and direction of Russian music more than any single musician.

The Russian Easter Festival Overture (1888) was composed during the composers most cherished period, when his powers of form and orchestration were at their height.  This mature period produced most of Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest works: Scheherazade, Capriccio Espanol, and this Overture.  Having taught composition, harmony, and orchestration for some years at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, his compositions in this late period achieved masterful lucidity and uniqueness of form, were intoxicatingly rich in their orchestration, and filled with exquisite melody.

The Overture depicts, as its title proclaims and its composer explained, a moment that its listeners should have lived to appreciate: “Mass on the morning of Easter Sunday, in a large church crammed with people of all social classes, where several popes are celebrating the office simultaneously … this change of mood from the somber mystery of Good Friday to the uninhibited rejoicing of Easter Day …”

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Of the several themes created by Rimsky-Korsakov, gritty in their Russian-ness and Eastern Orthodoxy, two are exceptional: one, with which the Overture begins, is later given to us by the trombone — throaty and beseeching, mirroring the pope’s canting, a theme which grows in power throughout the work, and a second theme — rhythmic and driving which is cleverly introduced by the timpani and spreads contagiously to the other instruments, echo the “heathen jollity” and Christian ecstasy of the Russian Easter.  And woven amongst them are climaxes that only the master Rimsky-Korsakov could create, moments in sound that seem to split the atmosphere apart as they rise to epiphany.