The Russian Easter Festival Overture by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is yet one more example of music I heard for the first time on KING-FM, Seattle’s sole surviving classical music station. I listen to KING-FM almost every weekday, and though their daily music schedule is always posted online, I never check ahead of time to see what I’m likely to hear. Thus, every piece is a surprise, and though I’m familiar with a lot of what they program, I’m continually exposed to music I never heard before. Much of that music was written by composers I never heard of, or if I have, whose music is largely under-appreciated, at least by me.
Time and again, that music has enriched my life in a way that only lovers of classical music can understand. My first impulse when I hear such a piece – one that grabs me by the vitals and says, “Pay attention, Derrick; you need to listen to this” – is to look it up on YouTube and listen to it again. My second is to share it with readers of this blog, in the hope that it might enrich their lives as it has mine.
One such piece is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture, which is known in Russia as The Bright Holiday. Written in 1887-88, I heard it for the first time last year. Though I was struck at once by its vitality and melodic richness – and soon after by the brilliance of its orchestration – I waited for the better part of a year to share it with you during the Easter season for which it was written.
The following description is taken from Rimsky-Korsakov’s own analysis, as it appears in his autobiography, My Musical Life:
During the summer of 1888 I finished The Bright Holiday, an Easter Overture on themes from the Obikhod [a collection of Russian Orthodox Church music]. The lengthy, slow introduction on the theme, ‘Let God Arise!’, alternating with the ecclesiastical theme, ‘An Angel Cried’, appeared to me in the beginning as Isaiah’s prophecy of the resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the holy sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the resurrection…
The beginning of the Allegro, ‘Let them also that hate Him flee before Him’, leads to the holiday mood of the Orthodox church service on Christ’s matins. The solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel is then displaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, dance-like tolling of the bells, alternating with an evocation of the sexton’s rapid reading and the chant of the priest’s reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, ‘Christ is risen’, which is the subsidiary part of the Overture, appears amid the trumpet-blasts and bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.
In this Overture were thus combined reminiscences of the ancient prophecy, of the gospel narrative, and also a general picture of the Easter service with its pagan merrymaking… The legendary and heathen side of the holiday, the transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning, is what I was eager to reproduce in my Overture.
You too can enjoy KING-FM, no matter where in the world you are. If you are beyond the reach of their broadcast signal, you can listen through your computer or smart phone any time of day or night. But now, it’s time to sit back, turn your speakers up or put your headphones on, and enjoy the Russian Easter Festival Overture as Dmitri Kitajenko and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov put the Danish National Symphony Orchestra through its paces.