About this work
This opera, composed in 1889 - 1890 to a libretto by Vladimir Belsky, was introduced at Moscow on November 3, 1900. "Little Pictures" for triple winds, brass, several drums, metal percussion, harp, celesta, and strings were extracted.
In the New Grove entry on Rimsky-Korsakov, Gerald Abraham branded most of the operas "musico-scenic fairy tales" lacking in specific characterization. Alexander Pushkin's writings exerted a mighty influence, inspiring three of the 15 operas: Mozart and Salieri in 1897, The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky's last) in 1907, and -- to give the work its full title -- The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of his son the famous and mighty hero Prince Guidon Saltanovich, and of the beautiful Swan Princess, all in a prolog with four acts.
Rimsky introduced all four acts with the same brass fanfare (Stravinsky used the same idea as a snare-drum roll in Petrushka). For the original three movements of the Tsar Saltan suite -- The Flight of the Bumblebee became a separate concert-piece, although it is usually performed with "Little Pictures" -- Rimsky retained the fanfare as an idée fixe (he had read Berlioz, too).
The marches in "The Tsar's Departure and Farewell" comprise the prelude to Act I. "The Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea" was the prelude to Act II. The prelude to scene 2 in the final act became "The Three Wonders" -- first, the Swan Princess herself; second a whistling squirrel that cracks nuts with emerald meats, and third, a flood of Guidon's island that leaves behind 33 golden-helmeted warriors. The Bumblebee was extracted from Act III. Both the first and third "Little Pictures" are brimful of melodies and orchestral flourishes, but more remarkable is the stormy, sea-tossed centerpiece, a tour de force without any melody, just orchestration at the service of pure harmony.