Today, a suite from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov! The opera is called Christmas Eve, and its plot involves a scheme by the Devil to steal the moon. Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas have suffered an unusual curse: they are well-loved and highly regarded by those who know them, but because they’re in Russian, a language that most singers don’t learn (and because singing operas in translation is out of fashion), they remain shrouded in obscurity, only known if at all through orchestral suites and excerpts like this.
David Dubal writes, in The Essential Canon of Classical Music:
Some of the best of Rimsky-Korsakov is contained in his fifteen operas, with their supernatural, pan-Slavic, mythological, and pantheistic symbolism. Unfortunately these operas remain unfamiliar to the vast majority of music lovers. They form an encyclopedic source of a lost, legendary, wild, and exotic Russia. According to the writer V.V. Yastrebsev, Rimsky-Korsakov confided, “You would scarcely find anyone in the world who believes less in everything supernatural, fantastic, or lying beyond the boundaries of death than I do. Yet as an artist, I love this sort of thing above all else. And religious ceremony? What could be more intolerable? But with what love have I expressed such ceremonial customs in music! No, I am actually of the opinion that art is essentially the most enchanting, intoxicating lie.”
It does surprise me that Rimsky-Korsakov, with his often beguiling melodies, magnficient orchestrations (few composers have ever wielded the full palate of the modern orchestra like Rimsky-Korsakov), and enchanting subject matter in many of his compositions nevertheless does not command a stronger position in the classical canon. I always enjoy listening to him, whether it’s something less familiar to me or a return to Scheherazade, one of my favorite classical works of all time.
So here’s a bit of Russian Christmas lore, depicted in the music of one of Russia’s great masters.