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Who wrote it better? Tchaikovsky vs. Rimsky-Korsakov

“Want to hear ‘Dance of the Tumblers’?”

Ice Queen
Ice Queen (by ArtsyBee on Pixabay)
CC0 license

“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.

Which came first?

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 they 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.”

Not surprisingly, 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 then 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, so Tchaikovsky’s comes first:

Tchaikovsky 'Dance of the Clowns' - Edward Downes conducts

After that is Rimsky-Korsakov’s:

Dance Of The Buffoons

They’re both fast, energetic pieces. Yet they’re still quite different from each other. I think it’s evident why both have remained in the repertoire. For instance, they’re very effective as concert openers or encore pieces. Arrangers have rewritten them for many other ensembles over the years (concert band, clarinet choir, etc.). Consequently, that can help a piece survive as more people get to play it.

Do we have a winner?

Who wins for you? I 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!

Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com

1 Response

  1. Always been partial to the Rimsky-Korsakov, particularly the brass band version.

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