1868: Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 2 (Antar Suite), age 24

Mr. Peabody Says:

Everything about this was a surprise. He wrote it when he as so young, but he was still working on it decades later. He called it a symphony because no one used the word “suite” at that time, but in his mind it was a suite. Most of all this is amazing music, and I never heard it until I went through all of his music for orchestra and started listening.

Yevgeny Svetlanov/USSR Symphony Orchestra (1997)

  1. 0:00 Largo—Allegro giocoso 12:23
  2. 12:23 Allegro—Molto allegro—Allargando 5:21
  3. 17:44  Allegro risoluto alla marcia 7:10
  4. 24:54 Allegretto vivace—Andante amoroso 7:10 (End: 36:00)

This is the 3rd version, and it’s longer than the others.


  • 3 flutes (3rd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais), 2 clarinets in A and Bb, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F
  • 2 trumpets in A and Bb, 3 trombones, 2 tubas
  • timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, 2 harps
  • strings

Which Antar?

There are actually four published versions of Antar, but the last is really a reworking of the 2nd, so there are three versions, not four.

1st version of the score in 1868.

This version was not printed in the composer’s lifetime; it was published in 1949. This edition also contains the earliest version of the second movement, very different in material and in the key of B minor. It was removed and another substituted before the first performance, so I’m assuming in the 1st performance the world heard some version of what was later published as the 2nd version.

2nd, revised and reorchestrated version in 1875:

Still called a symphony by Rimsky-Korsakov, this version was published in 1880. It is considered by some more dramatically focused than the 1897 version, perhaps because it seems to be about six minutes shorter.

(2nd version again, a 1903 re-working of the 1875 version:)

(This is a compromise version. It includes only what “suggestions” from the 1897 version could be incorporated onto the existing 1875 plates.)

3rd version in 1897:

This is contains the composer’s final thoughts on this work. Here Rimsky-Korsakov changed the work’s designation to “symphonic suite”. It was not published until 1913, under the supervision of the composer’s son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg.

First performance and name:

Rimsky-Korsakov called the work his Symphony No. 2. He later reconsidered and called it a symphonic suite. It was first performed in March 1869 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society. That 1st performance was probably closer to the 2nd version, from later, since he already changed the 2nd movement.

The Berlioz influence:

Hector Berlioz paid his final visit to Russia between November 1867 and February 1868 to conduct six concerts of the Russian Musical Society.Rimsky-Korsakov was not able to meet Berlioz due to the French composer’s ill health. Berlioz died in March 1869. He was, however, able to hear Berlioz conduct his Symphonie fantastique on December 7, 1867, and Harold en Italie at Berlioz’s final concert on February 8, 1868.

Rimsky-Korsakov began work on Antar on January 21, between these two concerts. Further, he may have been influenced in using the Antar theme as an idée fixe by the way he heard Berlioz use it in his compositions. An dée fixe is a recurring theme or character trait that serves as the structural foundation of a work.

Dargomyzhsky, and the influence of the Five, and other influences:

Rimsky-Korsakov mentioned receiving the principal theme of the fourth movement from Alexander Dargomyzhsky. As was their practice at that time, other members of the nationalists’ circle readily helped Rimsky-Korsakov in composing Antar. Their music helped to influence him, as well. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he was influenced when he composed the Antar theme by themes from César Cui and a collection of Algerian melodies by Francisco Salvador-Daniel given to him by Borodin.

Other influences:

He mentions several works whose influence made themselves felt in scoring Antar. These include Ruslan and Lyudmila, Liszt’s symphonic poems, Balakirev’s Czech Overture and Wagner’s Faust Overture.

More negativity from Mily Balakirev:

Rimsky-Korsakov wanted independence the dictatorial influence of Balakirev, who becoming nothing but a problem. Balakirev’s lack of enthusiasm with Antar’s progress probably did not help. While the completed first and fourth movements won praise from the rest of “The Five”, Balakirev approved them with reservations.

East and West:

Antar is dominated by the themes of East and West, according to the assumptions and customs of the time. The more Eastern influences served as a safety valve for subjects otherwise not considered mentionable in society.

Rimsky-Korsakov highlights two different styles of music, Western (Russian) and Eastern (Arabian). The first theme, Antar’s, is Russian in character. The second theme, Eastern in melodic contour, belongs to the queen, Gul Nazar.

A first for Decca:

Antar was the first classical music recorded in stereo by Decca Records. This was in 1954 with Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under Ernest Ansermet.


In 1869–70, Nadezhda Nikolayevna Purgold arranged the original version of Antar for piano four-hands. In 1875, four years after her marriage to Rimsky-Korsakov, she also arranged the second version of Antar for piano four-hands. This arrangement was published by Bessel.

From symphony to suite:

Rimsky-Korsakov explained both the change of Antar from symphony to suite and his adamant stance on doing so:

“The term ‘suite’ was then unfamiliar to our circle in general, nor was it in vogue in the musical literature of western Europe. Still, I was wrong in calling Antar a symphony. My Antar was a poem, suite, fairy-tale, story, or anything you like, but not a symphony. Its structure in four separate movements was all that made it approach a symphony.”

Thoughts on his form and orchestration:

Elaborating on this point, he cites Berlioz’s Harold en Italie and Symphonie fantastique as being symphonies as well as program music, due to the symphonic development of their themes and sonata form of their opening movements. Antar, in contrast, “is a free musical delineation of the consecutive episodes of the story.”While the “Antar” theme links these episodes, the piece “has no thematic development whatsoever—only variations and paraphrases.” The composer was happy with Antar’s form when he revised the score years later. He was also pleased overall with the orchestration of Antar, mentioning especially his use of flutes, clarinets and harp in their lower registers.

Viola for Mussorgsky:

He scored the initial appearance of the “Antar” theme to violas to please Mussorgsky, who was especially fond of the instrument.

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