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The Opera "The Tale of Tsar Saltan" and Its Music by Rimsky-Korsakov

The Tale of Tsar Saltan was originally crafted by Vladimir Belsky. The opera is based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s poem by the same name. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed it in 1899-1900 to pay homage to Pushkin’s centenary. In 1900, the libretto was officially performed in Moscow, Russia for the first time. The opera also pays testament to Rimsky’s score, which glows at its best in the fairytale mode.

Swan-bird from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Swan-bird role from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan



In the summer of 1899, the composer completed crafting the opera in a short score. However, the complete orchestration was finally wrapped up in the month of January, next year. The opera obtains the best elements of a fairy tale, combines them with contrasting characters, eventually sprinkling the confection with a dollop of magical effects. The original poem doesn’t pretend to be a dramatic masterpiece but draws close parallels to the Pantomime tradition prevalent in England. The end result is a concoction that leaves the viewers amazed.

The Libretto

The Tale of Tsar Saltan never aspires to be a musical sensation, it plays to its own strengths, and does so with great effect. Although the orchestral music does stand out, there is also plenty of other things to enjoy here. Rimsky’s through utilization of the “leitmotif technique,” which is distinguishable through his unique ability to strike out individualistic themes. The arias ooze their very own lyrical warmth, although they do portray similar characteristics of other Rimsky scores. The choral writing is absolutely glorious, and the subsequent orchestration and harmony are equally stupendous.

The Movements


Tsaritsa from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan
Tsaritsa's role from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan


The libretto opens in a village, depicting a chilly winter evening where three sisters are found to be spinning yarn at their home. The eldest sibling and the middle one gloat about their charms and talents while the youngest listens silently. However, her elders soon leave her to fend to the work, considering her modesty to be idiotic. That night, each sibling dream of their own fairytale marriage with the Tsar. The eldest boasted about throwing a grand feast, the second sister narrates how she would weave a great amount of the finest linen, while the youngest sibling promises to bear a brave son for the Tsar. The man of their dreams, Tsar Saltan overhears the entire conversation while standing beside the window. He promptly enters the room and announces his verdict - all siblings will stay at his palace. However, the eldest will serve as a cook, the middle one as a weaver and the youngest will become his spouse. The Tsar eventually departs the room with the youngest sister. The scene ends with the two elder sisters plotting to deceive the Tsar and eventually ruining their youngest sibling’s happiness.

Act I

Act 1 from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan

The act starts with a situation where the Tsar has left to fight wars, while Tsaritsa Militrisa has been blessed with a newborn. Although there is peace and serenity at Tsar’s palace, Tsaritsa is troubled. She is worry-stricken that she hasn’t heard from the Saltan for a long time. The jester tries to amuse her in vain, his tricks leaving little impression. The Old Man’s tales fail to grasp her imagination, the feigned kindness displayed by her sisters also fall in deaf ears. The palpable tension is suddenly broken by the indiscreet and unceremonious arrival of the messenger. However, the Saltan’s message that he was carrying had already been replaced. The plotters had managed to substitute it by getting the messenger drunk. The common folk is not convinced but subsequently, relent to the triumphant threats of Babarikha and the sisters. The hapless Militrisa, along with young Tsarevich is cast into the sea, sealed inside a barrel.

Act II

Act 2 from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan

The act opens at the bare shore on the island of Buyan. A wave has duly responded to Tsaritsa’s prayers, washing up the barrel ashore. Tsarevich has grown into a young man. He stares in delight at the surroundings as Militrisa is left lamenting her ill fate. Tsarevich crafts a bow and goes out to hunt. On the way he notices a huge kite chasing a swan and kills the former by shooting an arrow. However, to their great surprise, the swan-bird emerges from the sea and eventually disappears after promising to repay their act of kindness. As night falls, the mother and son fell asleep, only to wake up at first light and find a huge city magically appearing out of the mist. The city gates are visible, marred with a festive procession that includes cannon rings and merry bells. The residents of this city (Ledenets) offer a rapturous welcome to Guidon, asking him to attain the position of ruler.


Act 3 from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan

The first scene depicts Guidon as the people’s prince. However, inside he is longing for his father as he sadly gazes at a ship headed towards the Saltan’s kingdom. The swan-bird reappears. She learns of the prince’s sorrow and converts him into a bumblebee so that he can catch up with the ship. The second scene opens with the ship arriving at the Saltan’s kingdom. The Tsar welcomes the crew with open arms, throwing a feast and enquiring about any miraculous things that they have witnessed during their journey. The shipmen narrate the tale of the “City of Ledenets”, which magically appeared out on a desert island. They also mention the might of the thirty-three sea knights, a squirrel that nibbles on golden nuts and the brave Prince Guidon, who rules the Ledenets. The tales leave the Saltan astonished, aggravating his desire to visit this miraculous city. However, Povarikha and Tkachikha try anxiously to dissuade him. Babarikha also gloats about one thing that the city will surely not have; a Tsarevna of extraordinary beauty, the one who is rumored to live far across the seas. The bumblebee becomes angered by the blatant conspiracy. It stings each participant and flies off in the inherent confusion and chaos.      

Act IV

Act 4 from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan

In the first scene, Guidon is seen sadly walking by the sea, unable to get the Tsarevna’s tale out of his mind. He sorrowfully calls for the swan-bird, expressing his passionate love towards this unknown beauty and asking for her help. The swan-bird is again moved by his plight and turns herself unto the beautiful princess Guidon dreamed about. The scene ends with Tsaritsa Militrisa joyfully offering her blessings to the young couple. At the beginning of the second scene, Militrisa and Guidon await the Saltan’s arrival in exuberant trepidation. The people welcome the Tsar with open arms, leading him and his entourage towards the palace to the ovation of bells. The miracles of Ledenets are eventually displayed. The Tsar and his court are amazed at the sight of the magical Swan-princess, the thirty-three sea knights and the squirrel. Finally, Guidon and Militrisa join the Tsar, who tearfully embraces his wife and son. Endeared in this sudden happiness, he even forgives his jealous sisters. The piece ends with a grand feast.


There isn’t any inherent character development. They also fail to spark any sympathy. When they are truly feeling down, it feels like a melancholy that self-destructs at the slightest provocation. In the end, Rimsky-Korsakov’s light-hearted treatment does stand tall.

The supernatural elements of the story are highlighted, and rightly so. The music just adds the right amount of excitement and drama to the fold, converting it into the perfect light meal for the music craving audience. The fact is – The Tale of Tsar Saltan offers the same appeal for all walks of life – from a six-year-old child to the more sophisticated poetry lover of fifty-five. It requires little understanding, albeit enjoying a direct and immediate reception.   


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