Russian Easter Festival Overture: Overture on Liturgical Themes (Светлый праздник, Svetliy prazdnik), Op. 36, also known as the Great Russian Easter Overture, is a concert overture written by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov between August 1887 and April 1888. It was dedicated to the memories of Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin, two members of the group of composers known in English as “The Five”. It is the last of what many call his three most exceptionally brilliant orchestral works, preceded by Capriccio Espagnol and Scheherazade. The work received its premiere at a Russian symphony concert in St. Petersburg in late December 1888.
Instrumentation: The overture is scored for a Romantic orchestra consisting of 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in C, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in B♭, 3 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani tuned to A, D and G, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam), harp, and strings.
Background: The score is prefaced by two quotations from the Old and New Testaments and a third written by the composer corresponding to each of the overture’s three parts. The first part is prefaced by two verses from Psalm 68:1–2; the second from the Gospel of Mark 16:1–6; and a third which is a description of the Easter celebration written by the composer himself.
The tunes in the overture are largely from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, based on a collection of old Russian Orthodox liturgical chants called the Obikhod.
Rimsky-Korsakov said in his autobiography that he was eager to reproduce “the legendary and heathen aspect of the holiday, and the transition from the solemnity and mystery of the evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious celebrations of Easter Sunday morning”. He had always been interested in – and enjoyed – liturgical themes and music, though he was himself a non-believer.
Miloš Velimirović explained that, “The Obikhod was like the Russian’s Liber usualis… In 1848 it became mandatory for all of the Churches in Russia. “Thus the Obikhod became nationalistic in a sense. The tunes that Rimsky chose from the Obikhod would carry a certain nationalistic and religious weight to them, and the Russians would absolutely know them. The second way that the piece helps to pull on the heart strings of Russians as well as express its nationalistic appeal is by drawing on religious subject matter via word painting for the Easter Holiday.
Professor Robert Greenberg describes the Russian Easter Festival Overture as, “A narrative story of a Russian Easter day from dawn until dusk. “In Russian, Easter is known as the “Bright Holiday”.
Structure: The Russian Easter Festival Overture is mainly in sonata allegro form, with a lengthy introduction at the beginning. Throughout the piece, there are a number of prominent solo sections, featuring violin, cello, trombone, clarinet, and flute.
The opening section is written in 5/2 time, and is one of the more famous works for orchestra in quintuple meter. The final section of the piece is notated in 2/1 time, making occasional use of 3/1, and is one of very few orchestral works to use either of these time signatures.