Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a nationalist Russian composer and master orchestrator famous for symphonic works like Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol. He was born into a family with a history of military service in which he eventually followed. He started piano lessons at age 6 and composition at 10. Around the time of his graduation from military school, he met Mily Balakirev, who introduced him to fellow young composers César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, heightening Rimsky-Korsakov’s interest in a composition career. Eventually, with the addition of Alexander Borodin, these composers would call themselves The Five and advocate for a specifically Russian approach to composition. Later in his career, Rimsky-Korsakov became the Inspector of Bands for the Russian Navy as well as a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which now bears his name.
Procession of the Nobles (Cortége) was written in 1889 as part of the opera-ballet Mlada. Although it was originally begun in 1872 as a collaborative effort with three other composers, the initial project fell through. Rimsky-Korsakov completed it himself nearly 20 years later. I defer now to Eric Bromberger’s excellent program note for the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, first produced in 1892, almost defies the effort to describe it. In form it is half-opera and half-ballet, and its libretto is unbelievably complex, even by the standards of opera librettos. Set a thousand years ago in an imaginary kingdom called Retra on the shores of the Baltic, Mlada tries to fuse Wagnerian opera with ancient Russian legend, and the result is an absolutely fantastic story. Princess Mlada, a role that is danced rather than sung, has been murdered by her rival Voyslava, who sets out to secure the love of Yaromir, Mlada’s lover. The story involves magic, evil spirits, and trips into the underworld, and at the climax an entire village is submerged by an overflowing lake and Yaromir and Mlada are seen ascending on a rainbow.
Mlada has not held the stage, and the only familiar music from it is the Procession of the Nobles, the orchestral introduction to Act II, which begins with a festival of tradespeople. The music bursts to life with a rousing brass flourish, soon followed by the processional music, a noble tune for strings in E-flat major. This is music of color and energy, and in the opera it is punctuated by shouts from the crowd at the festival. A central section just as vigorous as the opening leads to a return of the march tune and a rousing close.
Rimsky-Korsakov made an orchestral suite from the opera, of which Procession of the Nobles is the final movement. You can see the full score here. Also, there is another great program note from the University of Wisconsin bands.
Here is the standard band transcription, arranged by Erik Leidzen:
And now the original orchestral version:
There is also a very nice version for young band arranged by Jay Bocook:
Want to read a biography of Rimsky-Korsakov on the Internet? You have a lot of options! Try Wikipedia, allmusic, ClassicalNet, and Encyclopedia Britannica. Also check out his collected works on IMSLP.
I conducted this at my very first concert with the Columbia University Wind Ensemble in 2002. It was then conducted by Ena Shin at our joint concerts with the Yale Concert Band in 2007. This summer (2013) Bill Tonissen will conduct it with the Columbia Summer Winds.