“Want to hear ‘Dance of the Tumblers’?”
“Sure! That’s a great piece!”
♪♫ music starts playing ♪♫
“That’s not it.”
“Um, yes it is. See the title? It’s from The Snow Maiden”
“I know it’s from The Snow Maiden. That’s not it.”
“Yes, it is!”
And things devolve from there.
We’re used to ambiguous titles in classical music (how many Symphony No. 1s are there? Etudes in C Major?). But two composers, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, made things even more confusing by writing similarly-titled dances for two theatrical versions of the story, “The Snow Maiden”. That were released within 10 years of each other. Both in Russia.
Tchaikovsky composed his version as part of incidental music for Alexander Ostrovsky’s play. It premiered in 1873 at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow. His piece is often translated as “Dance of the Tumblers” or “Dance of the Jesters.”
Rimsky-Korsakov composed an opera based on the same story. It premiered in 1882 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. His piece is often translated as “Dance of the Buffoons” or “Dance of the Tumblers.”
Tchaikovsky wasn’t pleased that Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his own Snow Maiden. He wrote to his friend (and publisher) Pyotr Jurgenson, “our subject has been stolen from us; that Lel sings the same words to different music—it’s though they’ve taken from me by force something that is innately mine and dear to me, and are presenting it to the public in bright new clothes. It makes me want to weep!”
I do feel for Tchaikovsky; it had to sting for a colleague to use the same source material just a few years after his own use of it. However, he did write in his diary, “Read Korsakov’s Snow Maiden and marveled at his mastery and was even (ashamed to admit) envious.”
Side note: copyright laws weren’t as strict as they are now. Even so, ideas aren’t copyrighted, just the fixed tangible expression of those ideas.
But now, on to the music!
We’ll go chronologically, and listen to Tchaikovsky’s first:
And on to Rimsky-Korsakov’s:
They’re both fast, energetic pieces. Yet they’re still quite different from each other. I think it’s easy to hear why both have remained in the repertoire. They’re very effective as concert openers or encore pieces, and have been arranged for many other ensembles over the years (concert band, clarinet choir, etc.)
Do we have a winner?
Who wins for you? I’ll confess I lean toward Rimsky-Korsakov’s offering, but that doesn’t mean that I dislike Tchaikovsky’s version. Why should I have to choose just one? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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