Composition and premiere: Rimsky-Korsakov composed Dubinushka in autumn 1905, but later revised it, completing the score on October 11, 1906. The first performance (of the original version) took place on November 18, 1905, in St. Petersburg at one of the Ziloti Concerts conducted by Alexander Ziloti. Serge Koussevitzky led all the previous Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the piece; the first was in November 1924 at Symphony Hall and the most recent, in December 1944, was at the Boston Garden. This is the first Tanglewood performance.
The violent political unrest that spread across Russia in 1905 severely disrupted life at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, where Rimsky-Korsakov had been teaching orchestration for more than 30 years. Strikes, demonstrations, and acts of terrorism (including the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II’s brother-in-law) exploded across the country, while a disastrous war with Japan further enﬂamed public opinion. In February, the students at the Conservatory went on strike and classes were suspended. Moved to respond, Rimsky wrote a letter supporting the students’ demands for reforms and was brieﬂy removed from his post as professor.
In October, as the turmoil of the Revolution of 1905 intensified, finally resulting in the establishment of a new constitution that limited the Tsar’s absolute power, Rimsky composed a musical response: Dubinushka, a short orchestral arrangement of a popular Russian folk song. Its text was originally adapted from folk sources by Vasily Bogdanov (1837-86), a well-known author of socialist poems and editorials. Like many American slave songs, Dubinushka was sung by workers as they toiled at heavy manual labor. The title is a diminutive form of the word dubina, meaning “cudgel” or “stick,” usually made of green oak—the tool supervisors would use to goad workers. Prophetically, the angry lyrics promise revenge against abusive masters: “When the people arise, they will crush the dukes and duchesses with their beloved dubina.” The song’s weary refrain ends with the exclamation “Da ukhnem”—“Pull together now!”
Dubinushka became a symbol of the revolutionary movement of the 1880s, and a rallying cry during the events of 1905. Rimsky reportedly heard striking workers singing it as they marched along the streets and wrote in his My Musical Life that his orchestration was composed “under the inﬂuence of rather on the occasion of the revolutionary disturbances.” At its first performance, Dubinushka shared the program with Alexander Glazunov’s new arrangement of another worker’s folk song, the famous “Volga Boatmen’s Song” (“Ei ukhnem”). Rimsky wrote that “Exactly as much as Glazunov’s piece proved magnificent, just so much did my Dubinushka prove short and insignificant, even though sufficiently noisy.”
Rimsky revised the piece during the summer and fall of 1906. His treatment transforms this seething anthem of brutality and oppression (as popularized by Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin and many other singers and ensembles up to the present day) into a rousing, almost jolly march. Opening with ﬂashy brass writing, Dubinushka proceeds to a serene treatment in the strings of the song’s main theme before a cavalcade conclusion reminiscent of the better-known “Procession of the Nobles” from Rimsky’s opera Mlada.
Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cineaste, and Opera News, and he has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.