After so many decades in which this allegedly trivial piece of music was part of my life's upholstery, I can't imagine this work the trivial showpiece most people claim it is. There were weeks of my life when my Dad seemed to play this piece on loop. I'm not sure I've glanced at a score of it more than a few times, but except for the exact tempos and dynamics I could probably create a reasonable facsimile of the score without looking at it. Every note is burned into my memory. When I suggested the other day in an unofficial forum among some music obsessives that there's much more to this piece than meets the eye, one of the more acerbic of my online music correspondents chastised me for overthinking it and assured me that the Russian Easter Overture is little more than a piece of religious kitsch. Suffice to say, I don't think it's a mere trinket of religious kitsch. I think it the masterpiece of Rimsky-Korsakov's illustrious career, and a work that paves the way for no less a piece than The Rite of Spring.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov may be most famous for writing Scheherazade, and his Capriccio Espagnol goes on virtually any greatest classical hits album, but he did so much more than that. He may not be one of the eternal masters of music, but he's about as great a composer as you can be without being in the first room of the Pantheon. As a teacher, he was a crucial (often THE crucial) mentor for Stravinsky, Glazunov, Prokofiev, Myaskovsky, Arensky, Liadov, and even Respighi(!!!). He wrote a dozen very fine operas that are rarely played in the West, but remain among the most popular repertory works in Russia, whose advanced harmonies and innovative orchestration clearly pave the way for Stravinsky. He made a cottage industry out of editing the proofs of contemporary Russian composers whose technique was considered more amateurish - and while his results often hide the greater depth of the originals with effects that the real composer would never countenance, the greater surface appeal got composers like Mussorgsky and Borodin performances when they otherwise would have disappeared from the repertoire. Without Rimsky, the loss to posterity would have been incalculable.
Unlike Russian contemporaries like Mussorgsky or Tchaikovsky, there isn't much by Rimsky Korsakov that is deeper than great entertainment. I think the proper way to think of Rimsky is as one of the world's greatest composers of light music. On that score, he ranks among one of the very, very greatest. He was not a composer who plumbed philosophical, psychological, or metaphysical depths. He was an orchestrator of miraculous effects. As an orchestrator, he was perhaps the very greatest of them all. There are plenty of other orchestrators in his class like Berlioz, Wagner, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Elgar, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Respighi, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, Shostakovich, Bernstein, John Adams, James MacMillan, Tan Dun, Thomas Ades... the list goes on and on... but unlike almost all of them, the effects never really serve at the behest of a greater message, and therefore draw attention to themselves in a way these other composers rarely do.
Like the novelist Joseph Conrad, Rimsky began his adult life as a naval officer, but unlike Conrad, he didn't take the lessons of his abroad sojourns nearly so seriously. Conrad used his visits to faraway places as an opportunity to examine the relationship of Europe to those she ruled. But if Rimsky's music is any indication, he was too enchanted by the exotic sights and sounds of what he saw to have much concern for how he contributed to the suffering of those places he visited. Nearly all music is like a spiritual travelogue, conjuring the spirit foreign lands for those who'd never been there. His operas are often set in legendary epochs, based on distant mythologies. Exciting as they are, don't expect anything nearly so deep as Boris Godunov.
In his 19th century way, Rimsky was paying tribute to the depth and greatness of spirit in those places he visited so eagerly. Nevertheless, to our 21st century ears, there is unmistakably something trivializing about his exoticisms. Unlike many in the humanities, I don't like throwing around the word 'orientalism' much, but it can't be denied that Rimsky reduced the essential humanity of the places to he's clearly trying to pay a very earnest tribute. People should be more forgiving of artists operating in a different time and ethos, but Rimsky's unwillingness to do more in his music than create a kind of musical cinema inhibits the quality of his creations.
But then, there's the Russian Easter Festival Overture. I think it's his masterpiece because, for only a few times in his career, Rimsky is not conjuring the sounds of faraway lands, but the sounds of his native country, which he can convey from his bones rather than the experiences of a short visit. Instead of painting musical postcards of these places he doesn't know particularly well, I think he manages to tap into something essential about the Russian condition. Rimsky wrote other Russian pieces, not nearly as well known. There's the "Overture on Three Russian Themes", ('theme' in this case means folk song) during which Rimsky milks the hell out of one particular theme which is much better known when it briefly appears in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The only piece of Rimsky's I know which seems to reach out to a similar level is his Christmas Eve suite, based on a series of Gogol short stories, but could obviously be viewed as a companion piece to the Russian Easter Overture.
Rimsky was anything but a religious man, but perhaps this made him particularly suited to portray religion. The piece begin very slowly and quietly, almost from a sepulchral ether. Surely these are the impressions of sitting in Church - it almost seems deliberately dull, as though to slow our clock down to a place where religious contemplation is possible. This musical tableaux lasts for an entire four-to-six minutes depending on the performance. It begins with a theme that can only be a Slavonic chant, "Gospodi Pompiluj" perhaps though the prosody doesn't quite fit. It's as though a call and response is happening between a cantor and the congregation (0:00, again at 2:00), interrupted at times with solos from the violin and flute that sound almost like the seraphic halo of Christ (0:45, 1:35, 3:10), and a flutter-tonguing of winds and string tremolos that could as easily be the fluttering about of angels as it could the Russian snow and gentle March wind outside (1:10, 3:40). Within a few minutes, the seraphic feeling becomes still more intense, with horns and winds giving almost warnings of coming danger whose prosody sounds uncannily like "Amen" (or 'Amin' in the Slavonic liturgy - 4:25, 5:10), and ending with strings and harps creating an almost hallucinatory effect (5:20-5:45) as though going into a dream state - brought on by incense perhaps?, or simply fatigue from the boredom of Church, maybe this is Rimsy falling asleep in the middle of the service (something to which all of us can relate) ...but whatever it is, it's followed by the musical equivalent of a cinematic jump (5:50), the scene suddenly changes to something that unmistakably sounds, to me at least, like a vodka-soaked drunken revelry. Is it pagan? Is it violent? Is it the Christianity of an age before it shed its pagan roots? Is it a dance around a bonfire? Is it the kind of religious ecstasy and violence which inspires pogroms? Whatever it is, it's clearly a Rite that is much, much more lively than thirty seconds previously. Is this even a Christian ceremony anymore? Perhaps it's pagan, and considering the time of year in which this overture/symphonic poem is set, perhaps Stravinsky took the inspiration from his beloved mentor to create The Rite of Spring from it. Whatever it is, it's like a Scorsesean cinematic wipe of absolute contrast, it yet another indication that Rimsky is one of music's master showmen.
What follows in the next ten minutes feels like a clash between these two forces of religion - religious benevolence and religious ecstasy, religious love and religious hate. One expression is benevolent but boring, the other is beguiling but dangerous. Perhaps this is Rimsky alternating between the dreariness of Church rites and the quasi-pagan rites of his dreams. At times, the intensity of these musical dreams becomes overwhelming. On the one hand, we hear what might be singing around an Easter dinner table, or a hymn in church (7:25, 8:40) - but is this a hymn, or is it a folk song? But a few second later, strings are plucked in a manner that can only resemble that Russian guitar-like instrument, the balalaika (7:40, 13:25), which inevitably stirs the music into a kind of ecstatic frenzy. At one point, the music becomes so frenzied that it makes me think of a Good Friday pogrom (starting at 10:25). Rimsky was an extreme progressive for his time and place, not only letting Jewish students board with him, but even allowing one of them become his son-in-law and succeed him in his professorship at the St. Petersburg conservatory. I have no doubt that Rimsky was as aware of the dangers of religion as the attractions.
But the glory of the piece is a passage towards the end, when Rimsky portrays the tintinnabulation of the Russian bells, which for centuries, Russians thought of as the great glory of Russian life. Every town in Russia was proud of their church bells, and in this all-too-brief passage (13:40), they ring together in a kind of celestial harmony that encapsulates the whole experience before all the themes are brought together for a final climax, bells accompanying the bombast. It's a passage that never fails to move me - one of those moments in great music that lets you remember the wonders of being alive.