Song of the Indian Guest

Song of the Indian Guest

Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Born into an aristocratic family, Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was educated at a naval college in St. Petersburg and sailed the world as a naval officer. While still a naval officer, he was composing music and was part of a group of eminent musicians including Borodin, Cui and Mussorgsky. In 1873 he resigned his naval commission, and in 1874, he became Balakirev’s successor as director of the Free school of music in St. Petersburg. He enjoyed international success as a conductor and he was professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Among his pupils were Stravinsky and Provokiev. He was considered to be Russia’s musical educator and he was a model both for his art and for his ethics.

As early as 1867, Mussorgsky suggested to Rimsky-Korsakov that the 11th Century Epic, ‘The Novgorod Cycle’ might make a good subject for a tone poem. Rimsky-Korsakov agreed but chose to concentrate on painting a ‘musical portrait’ of the poem’s seafaring hero rather than on the drama as a whole. In 1892, he decided to revise this tone poem into a series of epic tableaux known as ‘Opera-bilina’. The bilina is a Russian heroic ballad delivered in a specific vocal style which enjoyed a revival in the 19th Century as a result of the upsurge of Nationalism. In 1898 the result was ‘SADKO’ in seven scenes:

Scene 1: The rooms of the merchant’s guild in Novgorod, where the wealthy merchants are celebrating. Sadko, a troubadour, sings of his love for the City but reminds them that there are many lands worth exploring. They mock him and throw him out.

Scene 2: The banks of Lake Ilmen. Human ears are deaf to the offended musician so Sadko seeks solace in nature and finds an audience among the mermaids. The Sea King’s favourite daughter, Volkhova, presents him with her heart and three gold fishes.

Scene 3: Sadko’s wife, Lubava, is overjoyed to see him return but she is broken hearted when he announces that he must leave almost immediately.

Scene 4: On the busy quayside, Sadko wagers with the merchants, that he can harvest golden fish from the lake, and as predicted, his nets produce three gold fish. He wins his wager and proceeds to equip and man 30 ships with his new-found wealth. Sadko then asks three traders, – a Viking, a Venetian and an Indian – to sing of their lands so that he may decide which to visit.

Scene 5: Twelve years later, laden with treasure, Sadko’s ships begin their return to Novgorod but midway home, they are becalmed. Sadko steps on to a floating log. As he does so, the winds pick up and he is stranded. A mist rises.

Scene 6: When the mist clears, Sadko finds himself at the bottom of the sea as the guest of the King and Queen of the Ocean. Sadko is to marry Volkhova and their wedding is attended by every creature of the deep. Sadko sings, and a tumultous dance follows that creates such a storm that one of Sadko’s ships is sunk. He and Volkhova leave.

Scene 7: On the shores of Lake Ilmen, Volkhova sings a lullaby to the sleeping Sadko. She bids farewell to her sleeping lover and turns herself into the mighty river Volkhova. He is awakened by Lubava who has been waiting patiently ever since he left. For a moment, he thinks that everything has been a dream, but when he sees his fleet moving up the river, he realizes that he is the richest man in Novgorod. The City welcomes him with triumphant celebrations.

Sadko is an operatic fairy tale in which the music is convincingly fantastic, and Rimsky-Korsakov takes second place to no one in the brilliance of his orchestration. Painfully self-critical though he was, Rimsky-Korsakov considered it among his best works, later writing, “All my Operas after Sadko have, I think, only temporary interest.”

Once again, I have deliberately declined from commenting upon individual performances, these are all fine tenors and we all have our own preferences. I would personally apply only two criteria; (a) Vocal timbre and (b) expressiveness. So, purely from a personal point of view and choosing three only, my choice would be (1) Jussi Bjorling (In Swedish) (2) Richard Crooks (in French) and (3) Virgilius Noreika (In Russian).

Sadko: The Song of the Hindu Guest – English transcribed lyrics

Do not count the diamonds in caves of stone
Do not count the pearls in the southern sea
Of distant India so full of wonders.
There is a wondrous stone, a ruby set in the warm sea;
And on that stone there is a Phoenix, a bird with the face of a maiden
Who keeps singly songs of paradise so sweetly, Scattering her feathers and covering the sea.
Whoever hears this bird will forget everything. Do not count the diamonds in caves of stone
Do not count the pearls in the southern sea
Of distant India so full of wonders.

Audio: Rimsky-Korsakov: Sadko: The Song of the Hindu Guest

(01) Jussi Björling » On Youtube
(02) Sergei Lemeshev » On Youtube
(03) Richard Crooks » On Youtube
(04) Nicolai Gedda » On Youtube
(05) Virgilius Noreika » On Youtube