The Tale of Tsar Saltan : Work information

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
English Chamber Orchestra, Oliver von Dohnányi (Conductor)

This work

Work name
The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Work number
Op. 57
1899-01-01 02:00:00

This recording

Mark Brown
Mark Anthony
Recording date
1994-12-01 01:00:00

Track listing

  • The flight of the bumblebee 1:34 min


Written in 1899 to celebrate Pushkin's centenary, The Tale of Tsar Sultan, of his Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatir Prince Guidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Swan-Princess, to give the opera its full title, is an exotic fantasy full of colour and charm. Famous for its orchestral extracts, including the inimitable 'Flight of the Bumblebee' the opera was first performed in Moscow on 3 November 1900.

Unusually the structure of the opera is based on the folktale that also comprises its content. Thus each act is prefaced by a fanfare flourish, paralleling the verbal 'priskazka' that functions as a wakeup call in the poem. The fantastic characters make no concessions to realism and are often figures of fun, allowing Rimsky-Korsakov to make use of 'trivial' folk genres such as children's songs, carnival ditties, and lullabies.

Very few of the vocal numbers are performed out of context. Rather, it is the orchestral suite, actually first performed before the opera's premiere as Musical Pictures op.57, that is most often played. That and, of course, the 'Flight of the Bumblebee' from Act 3, which has had a rich life of its own in numerous virtuoso arrangements.

The Composers

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov

Rimsky-Korsakov studied piano and composition as a child, and was fascinated with opera orchestras. He trained, however, as a naval officer. In 1861 he met Balakirev, who encouraged his composition and started to perform his works. As a result,  Rimsky-Korsakov abandoned his career as a naval cadet to devote himself entirely to music. Balakirev introduced Rimsky-Korsakov to Borodin, Cui and Mussorgsky, and between them they made up the Russian ‘Big Five’ or ‘Mighty Handful’ of composers. Through Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov also met Dargomïzhsky.

Rimsky-Korsakov studied hard, teaching himself harmony and counterpoint. He wrote songs, orchestral works and an opera, The Maid of Pskov (completed in 1872). Then, in 1871 he became Professor of Orchestration and Composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, rapidly becoming a respected teacher. Here, his pupils included StravinskyGlazunov, ProkofievArensky and Lyadov. He also conducted at Balakirev’s Free School and was Inspector of Naval Bands from 1873 to 1884. His next opera, May Night (1880), was his first major comic opera, a genre in which he excelled. He collected folk songs which often had an influence on his music.

His composition was frequently interrupted by his official duties at the Imperial Chapel (1883-91) and advising for the publisher Belyayev. He also set himself the task of completing and revising the work of some of his fellow-composers, such as Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and much of the seemingly uneven writing of his friend Mussorgsky. During 1887 and 1888 he wrote three of his best-known orchestral works, Sheherazade, the Spanish Capriccio and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. After that he spent his time composing operas, including Kitezh (1907) and The Golden Cockerel (1909).

Generally known for his colourful orchestral compositions, Rimsky-Korsakov also wrote songs and choral music, chamber music and works for piano. His textbook on orchestration is widely used.

Related Composers: Cui, Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Glazunov, Arensky, Liadov