Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rimsky-Korsakov - Overture On Three Russian Themes

The nationalistic movement in Russian music began with Mikhail Glinka in the early 19th century and after his death in 1857 Mily Balakirev became the leader of the movement. Balakirev was a member of, and a main influence on, the other four composers of  a group known as The Five; Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. But his influence was also felt by Tchaikovsky, and other Russian composers.

Rimsky-Korsakov was in training to be an officer in the Russian Navy, and when not at sea Balakirev taught him the rudiments of composition and encouraged him to compose.  While Rimsky-Korsakov was on two-year duty at sea he wrote to Balakirev expressing his loss of interest in music, but when he was stationed ashore, Balakirev inspired and pushed him to compose in earnest and gave him ideas for many projects. One of these was the Overture On Three Russian Themes, inspired by Balakirev's Overture On Three Russian Folk Themes.  Balakirev conducted the first version of the work in 1866, but Rimsky-Korsakov revised the work in 1880 and this is the version that is usually performed today. 

Mily Balakirev
The work begins with a slow introduction that introduces the first of the themes known in Russia by the name of 'Slava'. This theme was previously used by Beethoven in the scherzo of his 8th String Quartet Opus 59, No. 2 (the second of the set of three quartets known as the Rasmouvsky quartets). Mussorgsky also used the theme in the Coronation Scene of his opera Boris Godunov.  This theme is expanded and developed until the appearance of the next theme known in Russia as 'At The Gates', a theme previously used by Tchaikovsky in his 1812 Overture.  This second theme is at a faster pace and is played a few times with minor variations. The third theme begins directly after the second and is known as 'Ivan Is Wearing A Big Coat'. For the rest of the piece the themes weave in and out in slightly different guises, but always recognizable. At the very end of the piece the opening 'Slava' theme makes a last appearance in a hushed beginning that expands to a treatment from the full orchestra punctuated by the brass. The pace quickens as snippets of the 'Slava' theme are heard, and the overture ends. 

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