Mary Moran looks at the story behind a famous Russian fairy tale

The Snow Maiden, the much-loved Rimsky-Korsakov opera, was based on a play that premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre, seven years earlier, on 11 May 1873. As was the way with plays of the time it came with accompanying instrumental music. The theatre commissioned the 49-year-old Alexander Ostrovsky to write the play and the 32-year-old Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to score the music. The two had collaborated on previous works and their creative partnership enabled them to work closely. The composer completed his score in just three weeks.

In Ostrovsky’s version of the familiar Russian fairy tale, a child is born to the Spring Fairy and Father Frost. The child, Snow Maiden, inherits a longing for warmth and love from her mother and a loveless cold fate from her father. This presents a conflict born for musical expression and Tchaikovsky found nineteen opportunities to do so, employing a full-size orchestra, chorus and soloists to create a score that has been described as both lavish and charming.

Tchaikovsky weaves folk music throughout the drama and uses other pastoral touches, such as the oboe, to accompany the shepherd’s love songs. There is a change of mood as the Tsar sets a challenge to find a suitor to melt the maiden’s cold heart. The associated celebrations are marked with an energetic sequence of dances, choruses, and all-round merriment. A suitor is identified, and the Spring Fairy, albeit reluctantly, grants her daughter the capacity for love.

Just when it seems a happy ending is assured the plot takes an unfortunate turn. At the very moment the Snow Maiden abandons herself to love she is struck by a ray of the wakening sun and melts away before her lover’s eyes. In the depths of his despair, the lover throws himself off a cliff. While things end unfortunately for the young couple, the drama’s denouement finds expression in a charming instrumental interlude and the work ends with a rousing March of the Tsar and a hymn-like Finale to sing the sun god’s praises.

As to the success of the premiere, the audience who rose from their seats 150 years ago was divided. The literary members who regarded Ostrovsky as a fine satirical realist were perplexed at the rather ho-hum fairy tale story line. The musical members, however, loved it. Tchaikovsky himself regarded The Snow Maiden as a success. In 1879, when his patron complimented him on the poetic qualities of the music, he replied: “The Snow Maiden is one of my favourite offspring. Spring is a wonderful time; I was in good spirits, as I always am at the approach of summer. I think this music is imbued with the joys of spring that I was experiencing at the time.”

In fact, Tchaikovsky so loved this particular ‘offspring’ that he had intentions to develop the full opera and was disappointed when he was pipped at the post by Rimsky-Korsakov. Tchaikovsky wasn’t to be completely outplayed, however. Some of his Snow Maiden score went on to live another life and you may recognize it in parts of his overture-fantasia, Hamlet.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of the 2MBS Fine Music Magazine