Mar 182017

Today is the birthday (1844) of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков) a Russian composer who was a member of the group of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful: a late 19th century group intent on promoting a distinctively Russian style of music. I have covered two other members here:



Rimsky-Korsakov was known among The Five as a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions—Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade—are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of folk subjects with magical components. Rimsky-Korsakov believed in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian traditional lore married to exotic harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements and only reluctantly used traditional Western compositional methods. Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques more after he became professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five.

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea probably influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this ability to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.

Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire, and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as a teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore often considered to be the main architect of what the art music world considers the Russian style of composition.  These days I have two problems with Rimsky-Korsakov’s activities in this sphere. On the one hand, his orchestrations of works by other members of The Five, notably Mussorgsky’s, is often considered as meddling these days, and it is sometimes difficult to find the original that Mussorgsky intended under Rimsky-Korsakov’s “improvements.”  On the other hand, nationalism in its many forms is toxic to my soul, not least Russian nationalism (although I hate it wherever it lives). I can certainly appreciate the desire on the part of young Russian composers to break away from the mold of what they saw as German or Italian styles of music, but the nationalism of The Five (as noted below) can get a bit too heavy handed for my tastes at times.

Rimsky-Korsakov is sometimes seen as a transitional figure between the generally self-taught members of The Five and the professionally trained composers who became the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style greatly influenced two generations of Russian composers, but also non-Russian composers such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.

For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which is very frequently played on its own as a bravura solo. Isolating the piece from its operatic context and from its original scoring does it an injustice in my humble opinion. Let’s start with a fairly standard solo version for trumpet, preceded by a worthy pep talk from the soloist.

This is familiar stuff, whatever the solo instrument may be.  But Bumblebee is a small, one might say insignificant, part of a large-scale operatic treatment by Rimsky-Korsakov of a Russian folk tale from Pushkin. Pushkin’s original is known in English as The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan.  The première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre.

Pushkin’s narrative, adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov is as follows:

The tale concerns three sisters whom the tsar spies on. He chooses the youngest as his bride (tsaritsa) because when he overhears them discussing what they would do if the tsar were to marry them, the eldest says she would make a sumptuous feast, the middle sister says she would weave fine cloth, and the youngest says she would bear him a son. When he chooses to marry the youngest, he orders the other two sisters to be his royal cook and weaver. They become jealous of their younger sister, so when the tsar goes off to war and the tsaritsa gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidón, the elder sisters arrange to have the tsaritsa and the child sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea takes pity on them and casts them on the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. He ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite bird.

The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, so the swan turns him into a mosquito to help him. In this guise, he visits Tsar Saltan’s court, where he stings his aunt in the eye and escapes. Back in his realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. But he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him again, this time into a fly. In this guise Prince Gvidon visits Saltan’s court again and he stings his older aunt in the eye. The third time, the Prince is transformed into a bumblebee and stings the nose of his grandmother.

In the end, The Prince expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which point the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the tsar, who is overjoyed to find his newly married son and daughter-in-law.

In the opera, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is a musical interlude in Act 3 between scenes 1 and 2 representing the prince’s initial transformation into a bumblebee and his flight to the ship that will carry him to his homeland. In the opera, the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the “Flight” but her vocal line is melodically unrelated and so can easily be omitted. Because of this feature and the fact that this section conclusively ends scene 1, it can stand alone.  Here is a link to the full opera. I find the heavy-handed nationalism a little hard to stomach, but it is useful to hear “Flight” in its musical context.  You’ll find it at 1.27.00.  If you rewind to 1.25.00 you’ll hear the lead in, and be able to note the leitmotifs that appear in various places throughout the opera, and which are incorporated in “Flight.”

For my money “Flight” sounds much richer and more fully developed as an orchestral piece than as a solo act. Here it is extracted  from the opera:

What do you think?

For Borodin and Mussorgsky I gave full blooded Russian recipes from St Petersburg, so there is no need to alter course with Rimsky-Korsakov.  I have chosen pirozhki (Пирожки) for today – a savory or sweet  bread-dough encased pastry that can be baked or fried.  In keeping with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame as a master of orchestration I am going to give you a choice of three fillings and instructions for baking or frying. In truth they can be stuffed with all manner of things: meat, cabbage, fish, rice, fruit, etc. Take your pick. You can make a decidedly Russian lunch by serving pirozhki with borshcht.




1 (⅜ oz) package dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup oil or butter
4 ½ cups flour

Filling #1 (Braised Cabbage)

1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 tsp paprika
1 small head cabbage, shredded
10 white mushrooms, diced
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced

Filling #2 (Beef and Onion)

1 lb ground beef
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp flour
½ cup stock
3 tbsp sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
salt and black pepper

Filling #3 (fruit)

2 ¾ cups peeled, cored and finely diced apples
¼ cup sugar
lemon juice

oil for frying (if necessary)
beaten egg (if necessary)



Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it stand 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the flour and add the milk, egg, oil and yeast. Combine to make a soft dough. Knead for about 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size (one half hour to one hour).

Filling #1

Sauté the carrots, onion, mushrooms and bell pepper in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the cabbage, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Set aside to cool.

Filling #2

Brown the beef in a dry skillet over high heat, then add the onions and continue to cook the mixture for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Combine the flour with the stock and pour over the meat.  Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.

Add the sour cream, boiled eggs, dill, and salt and pepper to taste and stir thoroughly to mix.  Set aside to cool.

Filling #3

Toss the apples and sugar in a mixing bowl with some lemon juice to prevent browning. Set aside.

To Bake

Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, flatten it with your fingers or roll it out in a circle to ⅛” thickness. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and bring the opposite edges of circle together. Pinch the seam securely. (The traditional shape is a plump center with tapering ends). Repeat.

Let the pirozhkis rise on a lightly greased baking tray, seam side down, for 30 minutes.

Brush with beaten egg and bake until golden brown (approx 20 minutes). Serve warm.

To Fry

Heat your deep fryer to 360°F.

Roll out dough circles as for baked pirozhki and fill them in the same way, making sure the seam is tight and no filling is in the seam. Deep fry them in batches immediately until they are golden (that is, do not let them rise).  Drain on wire racks and serve warm.

Apr 292016


Today is the birthday (1895) of Vladimir Propp (17 April Old Style), Russian folklorist and philologist. Propp was born in St. Petersburg to a German family. He attended St. Petersburg University (1913–1918) studying Russian and German philology. Upon graduation he taught Russian and German at a secondary school and then became a college teacher of German. His most well-known work, Morphology of the Folktale was published in Russian in 1928,  but, even though it represented a breakthrough in both folklore theory and narrative morphology, it went generally unnoticed in the West until it was translated in 1958. By the time it came to the attention of Western scholars it was already a bit outdated, but had an impact in some quarters.

In 1932, Propp became a member of Leningrad University (formerly St. Petersburg University) faculty. After 1938, he chaired the Department of Folklore until it became part of the Department of Russian Literature. Propp remained a faculty member until his death in 1970.


Propp’s analysis has two components. Perhaps of greatest note is his idea of breaking up folktales into sequences of archetypical units, usually paired into opposites. By so doing he was able to show that, despite surface variations, Russian folktales had certain basic underlying narrative structures. One such pairing is the classic Interdiction/Interdiction Violated. That is, the main character is instructed NOT to do something. We all know what happens next. “Under no circumstances press the red button.” Such an interdiction does not occur in a plot unless the hero is going to violate the command at some point, normally at a critical juncture in the narrative. In many Russian folktales An interdiction followed by a violation of the interdiction is what sets the story in motion.

Propp also broke down the characters in folktales into 7 archetypes as follows:

The villain — an evil character who creates problems for the hero.

The dispatcher — any character who creates the need for the hero’s quest.

The helper — a typically magical entity who comes to the aid of the hero.

The princess or prize — the hero’s reward for completing the quest. Typically the hero  is unable to marry her at the outset as a consequence of some evil or injustice, perpetrated the villain.

The donor — a character who prepares the hero or gives the hero some magical object, sometimes after a test.

The hero — the character who reacts to the dispatcher and donor characters, thwarts the villain, resolves any lacking or wronghoods and weds the princess.

The false hero — a figure who takes credit for the hero’s actions or tries to marry the princess.


Propp comes under a lot of criticism nowadays, but 40 years ago when I was a graduate student in folklore he was popular and I wrote a few papers using his methods. I still teach his principles on occasion, but critically. Sure, archetypes and basic plot structures can be helpful, but only to a point. I’m not a reductionist at all these days. Knowing that two different stories have the same underlying structure does reveal something about the culture from which they originated, and the basic values that are important.  But . . . they are DIFFERENT, and differences matter. I’m much more interested in an analysis that elaborates on the complexities of a tale in the style of Max Weber, rather than one that reduces it to simple, basic elements. Furthermore, Propp’s analysis is not all encompassing. Here’s a classic Russian folktale. Where are his archetypes and essential plot devices?


Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman who were very poor and had nothing at all to their name. And they kept getting poorer and poorer until there was nothing left to eat in the house, not even bread. The old man said:

“Do bake us a bun, old woman! If you scrape out the flour-box and sweep out the bin, you’ll have enough flour.”

So the old woman scraped out the flour-box and swept out the bin, she made some dough and she shaped a little round bun out of it. She then lit the oven, baked the bun and put it on the window sill to cool. But the bun jumped out of the window and on to the bench outside, and from the bench on to the ground, and away it rolled along the road!

On and on it rolled, and it met a Rabbit coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Rabbit.

“Don’t do that, Fleet-Feet, let me sing you a song instead,” said Little Round Bun.

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“Here it is!

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And off it rolled and away. By and by it met a Wolf coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Wolf.

“Don’t do that, Brother Wolf, let me sing you a song instead.”

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And away it rolled.

By and by it met a Bear coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Bear.

“Don’t do that, Brother Bear, I’ll sing you a song instead!”
“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

And away it rolled and away!

By and by it met a Fox coming toward it.

“I’m going to eat you up, Little Round Bun!” called the Fox.

“Don’t do that, Sister fox, I’ll sing you a song instead.”

“All right, let’s hear it!”

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin
And baked in the oven
And cooled on the sill.
I ran away from Grandpa,
I ran away from Grandma,
And I’ll run away from you, this minute I will!”

“Sing some more, please, don’t stop!” the Fox said. “Hop on to my tongue, I can hear you better.”

Little Round Bun jumped on to the Fox’s tongue and began to sing:

“I was scraped from the flour-box
And swept from the bin-”

But before it could go on, the Fox opened her mouth and – snap! -she gobbled it up.

One could object that Propp was concerning himself only with hero tales. Fair enough, but that’s something of a limitation of his formalism – my analysis works on the tales it works on.

Let’s bake Russian buns instead. These are not as simple as the bun in the story, but are undoubtedly more delicious. This recipe is for a simple peasant dish, as befits the tale. You can vary the fillings as you wish — meat, mushrooms, onions etc. are all traditional.




2 cups milk, warmed
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 tbsp active dry yeast
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp salt
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp butter
½ medium head cabbage, finely chopped
6 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
salt and pepper


Put ½ cup of the warmed milk in a small bowl. Stir in the sugar and sprinkle the yeast over the top. Set aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Pour the remaining milk into a large bowl.

Add the melted butter (2 tbsp), egg, salt and 1 cup of flour to the large bowl with the milk. Stir in the yeast mixture. Mix in the flour 1 cup at a time until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and doesn’t stick to your hands. Cover the bowl loosely with a kitchen towel and set it in a warm place to rise for about 1 hour. The dough should almost triple in size. The typical test that it has risen sufficiently, which you can start after about 40 minutes, is to press your thumb in and release. The dough should spring back in 2 or 3 seconds. If it is too slow, let it rise a little longer. Rising times vary considerably.

While you are waiting for the dough to rise, melt the remaining butter (1 tbsp) in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the cabbage and sauté, stirring frequently, until cabbage has wilted. Mix in the eggs and season with salt and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the cabbage is tender. Set this aside for the filling.

Place the risen dough on a floured surface and gently form into a long snake about 2 inches wide. Cut into 1 inch pieces and roll each piece into a ball. Flatten the balls by hand until they are 4 to 5 inches across. Place a spoonful of the cabbage filling in the center and fold in half to enclose. Pinch the edges together to seal in the filling.

Preheat the oven to 400°F/200 °C. Line one or two baking sheets with aluminum foil or baking parchment. Place the pirozhki on the baking sheet, leaving room between them to expand. If you like you can brush the tops with melted butter.

Bake for 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

Serve warm from the oven.