Rimsky-Korsakov – Symphony No. 2 “Antar” Op. 9

by Max Derrickson

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov     (b Tikhvin, March 18, 1844; d Lyubensk, nr Luga [nowPskov district], June 21, 1908)

Symphony No. 2 “Antar” Op. 9
1. Largo- Allegro giocoso
2. Allegro
3. Allegro risoluto all marcia
4. Allegretto vivace

Given to a lively imagination and a lust for travel, young Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s first career was exploring the world as a Naval Officer.  When his first six month naval tour ended, however, his love of music captured him completely and sated his youthful lusts.  His music was immediately championed by Balakirev, leader of the famous “Mighty Fistful” of five Russian Nationalist composers, including Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition) and Borodin (Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor).  Though his only three symphonies were early compositions, his masterful abilities for orchestral coloring and tunefulness were already evident, and especially magical in Symphony No. 2, “Antar.”  Exotic folk tales, such as the legend of the Arab Antar, never ceased to fascinate Rimsky-Korsakov throughout his life.

The original Antar was born in what is now theUnited Arab Emiratesas Antarah Ibn Shaddād al-‘Absi.  He lived in pre-Islamic Arabian times (around 580) and was a famous poet and adventurer-warrior.  His life, as expressed through his poems, created the basis for an epic folk legend written centuries later by Osip Syenkovsky describing an extravagant romance — full of battles, magic, fairies, love and death.  Rimsky-Korsakov took a few liberties with the epic, and his Symphony follows this storyline:  Antar’s adventures have led him to the desert ruins ofPalmyra.  Between wakefulness and dreams he comes across a gazelle about to fall prey to a ghoulish, giant bird.  Antar defends the gazelle, which turns out to be the fairy Gul-Nazar, the Queen of Palmyra.  For his chivalry, Gul-Nazar grants him the three joys his life has lacked, Vengeance, Power and Love.  The Symphony’s first movement sets the parameters of the story, and the remaining three treat the three joys in succession.

Thematically Rimsky-Korsakov followed the lead of Hector Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) by using specific themes to represent characters and literal themes  throughout the whole work.  The musical story begins with rising string figures,
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The next theme is actually an Algerian folksong borrowed from Borodin, and which Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated with exquisite deftness.  Throughout the first movement, Antar’s theme, broad and dignified, is most prominent.  These themes, or idée fixes, then tie the whole Symphony together.

[. . .]
In the finale, Love has come to Antar through Gul-Nazar, but in this he will be consumed and die.  In a lovely set of passages, we hear the beautiful flute theme of the fairy entwine with Antar’s theme, and the story comes to a poignant close.  Most clever throughout the Symphony is the melodic structure of Antar’s theme, which allows Rimsky-Korsakov to change the harmonies upon the last note of the first phrase, and in this, the composer creates some breathtaking moments.