Originally entitled Bright Holiday, the Russian Easter Overture is the work of the brilliant Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Himself an atheist, Rimsky-Korsakov based the Overture on the Obikhod, a collection of Orthodox canticles which moved through the Easter liturgy. I became acquainted with the piece during high school, when our concert band performed it for a spring concert. Experiencing firsthand the mystery and joy of the piece, I resonate with what Richard Freed, writing program notes for the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of the Overture, has to say:
In place of the serenity of chaste expressions of joy we encounter in Western Easter music, there is an utterly different form of exaltation here, expressed in terms of sheer vitality and visceral excitement as well as mystery and solemnity. It is a different world, ablaze with colors and lights, set off by passages of brooding darkness.
Freed goes on to quote Rimsky-Korsakov's own program notes:
This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture. . . . The rather lengthy slow introduction . . . on the theme “Let God arise” [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody “An angel cried out” [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the Holy Sepulchre that had shone with ineffable
light at the moment of the Resurrection—in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro —the theme “Let them also that hate Him flee before Him”—led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ's matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dancelike tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton's rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest's reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The Obikhod theme, “Christ is arisen,” which forms a sort of subsidiary part of the overture, appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting a triumphant coda.
As you walk through Easter weekend, may you truly experience the mystery and solemnity of this Holy celebration. And may new joy and hope rise in your soul as you affirm, "Christ is arisen."
Note: The youtube version above is performed on period pieces by the Anima Eterna Orchestra, Jos van Immerseel conducting.