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Blog

Witches and Sorcery in a Christmas Eve Masterpiece

Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow
Vitaly Vlasov
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Saint Basil Cathedral in Moscow

Witches, sorcery, and the devil aren’t often part of the tales we hear around Christmas time. But when it comes to Russian fairy tales, nothing is off the table — not even on Christmas Eve.

Based on a fanciful short story by Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “Christmas Eve” follows a small 18th-century Ukrainian town through an eventful Christmas Eve.

As in so much Russian literature, the plot is intricate and complex. Suffice it to say that deals with the devil are made and broken, local men are thrown into burlap sacks and carried around, and a sorceress actually manages to steal the moon — and it all ends with a gift from the empress, a happy engagement, and a fantastical tale to tell during the festive days that follow.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed the opera in 1894 and 1895, and, following its success, composed operas nearly every 18 months.

Yevgeniya Mravina as Oksana, the daughter, in the premiere, December 10, 1895 at Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. (Public domain)
Yevgeniya Mravina as Oksana, the daughter, in the premiere, December 10, 1895 at Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. (Public domain)

Christmas Eve Orchestral Suite

The concert suite, composed in 1904, takes the best music from the opera and condenses it into 20-plus minutes of perfectly cinematic orchestration.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral works are always lush and melodic — think of Scheherazade, with its ever-shifting textures and its soaring melodies.

I often use the word “cinematic” to describe Rimsky-Korsakov’s music — that’s because it feels like the very best film scores do, with each note perfectly attuned to its moment in the story.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0vFOax7ZeU&feature=emb_title