About this work
During the winter of 1898, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov often visited with V.I. Byelsky, a librettist with whom he was familiar, for the purpose of developing subject matters, such as mythical legends or literary works, for possible operas. Only one of these proposed subjects was actually acted upon, Pushkin's Tale of Tsar Saltan. There were a few other ideas of merit developed during this time, but they were all set aside for another date in order that the librettist and composer could concentrate work on the opera that was to be The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900).
Byelsky started on the libretto, which Rimsky-Korsakov thought was magnificent, in the spring of 1890. The librettist attempted to stay true to Pushkin's writing style as much as possible. As Byelsky would complete a scene of the opera, it would be handed to Rimsky-Korsakov, who subsequently began composing the music for the scene. The entire opera was constructed this way, piece by piece.
The composer described the manner in which he composed The Tale of Tsar Saltan as "instrumental-vocal." The story of the opera has elements of fantasy and realism. Rimsky-Korsakov composed in a pictorial, instrumental manner for the parts of the opera which were fantastic, while the realistic parts were written in an declamatory, vocal style. The opera begins with a scenic Prologue, in which the character of the Tsar Saltan is introduced. This dramatic prelude takes the place of the traditional orchestral overture to begin the opera. Also, each of the four acts was preceded by a rather lengthy orchestral prelude. At the beginning of each act, a short trumpet fanfare signaled the audience that the action of the opera was resuming. Rimsky-Korsakov considered the fanfare to be "a device quite original and suitable for a fairy-tale." The orchestral preludes heard before the beginning of Acts I, II, and IV were made into a concert suite by the composer titled Little Pictures for the Tale of Tsar Saltan.