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September 3, 2009

'Mad Men' (Season 2) stirs unexpected memories of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Song of India'

Robert (my better half) and I are trying to catch up with the rest of the oh-so-with-it world by Netflix-ing our way through "Mad Men." Can't say I like a single character in the show, but I love the acting, the whole look and mood of the thing. One element that I find quite impressive is the telling use of popular music from the day, especially each choice for the final credits.

In the first show of Season 2, which we just saw, I was startled by the appearance of a classical golden-oldie that has long been out of favor and earshot, the so-called "Song of India" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Sadko." An instrumental ensemble was playing the piece as Don Draper met his wife in a hotel lobby for their Valentine's celebration, and it was used again for the credits at the end.

I can't remember the last time I thought of this music, which is so out-of-fashion that even unadventurous classical radio stations probably don't think to play it. Hearing it on that "Mad Men" episode brought back memories of learning the tune in a simplified version at the piano as a kid (it was the sort of thing you used to find in beginner books).

Later on, I associated the piece with Ethel Mertz hamming it up through the melody when she and Fred were auditioning for something, or, with Tommy Dorsey, who did a fab big band arrangement of it (no, I wasn't around when he recorded it -- I just got hooked on music of the '30s and '40s when I was young, decades and decades after that era).

Eventually, I discovered Rimsky-Korsakov and "Sadko" and several

wonderful recordings of this tenor aria, which occurs in Tableau IV of the opera when townsfolk of Novgorod gather at a pier to hear foreign merchants tell of their wares. One of those merchants sings about the diamonds, pearls and rubies "of miraculous far-off India." Rimsky-Korsakov was such a master of musical atmosphere that it's easy to believe the music really is exotic, from that far-off place.

I think the melody got such a workout over the years, in so many, often cheesy arrangements, that it must have seemed kitschy, rather silly. It didn't help that, in the West, no one staged "Sadko," so there wasn't much chance for people to discover where the aria came from. Today, I suspect a lot of folks would still consider this more pops than classical, not something to take too seriously. Well, I think the "Song of India" retains enormous charm and quality, revealing the hand of a master composer.

Don Draper seemed to be afraid someone might start warbling it in that hotel lobby, but I'm sure you'll be delighted to stick around for the two vocal performances I've retrieved from good ol' YouTube. Neither is in the original Russian, but never mind that. The first gives us the aria straight, sung (in Swedish) with his usual elegant styling by the incomparable Jussi Bjorling, my all-time favorite tenor. The second, by Miguel Fleta (in Spanish), offers much more rhythmic freedom and some very individualistic phrasing by a singer who ought to be better known today. I think both versions honor the simple beauty of the music and serve as reminders that the "Song of India" deserves fresh respect.

Oh, yeah, I also couldn't resist tagging on the Tommy Dorsey arrangement, just for fun. You weren't in a hurry, were you?

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:30 AM | | Comments (4)


Rimsky-Korsakov can definitely be included in the "Music we have been missing" series. His operas are wonderful - though one wouldn't know it from the dull Gergiev recordings. The suites from them should be heard more often - thankfully the NSO is doing one this season, and I think Zinman used to do them as well here. Then, there are the symphonies.

I heartily concur. TIM

Thanks Tim for this beautifully written piece about a wonderful TV show (MadMen is really a personal addiction) which does do an amazing job of reintroducing us to parts of our musical heritage that have sadly gone "out of fashion". The show has sparked a real interest in the clothing fashions of that time (witness the recent Banana Republic "Mad about" campaign). Maybe it will have a similar effect on our musical tastes.

In addition to the music, I must say that the idea of being able to drink constantly on the job has begun to appeal to me, too. I hope that starts to catch on again. And thanks for commenting. TIM

If we could hear Song of India in context next to The Song of the Viking Guest (bass) and The Song of the Venetian Guest (baritone) in a performance of Sadko.... I have the Gergiev recording, but Don Ciccio's comment might explain why I prefer to play Bjoerling, Lisitsian or Hvorostovsky, and Christoff in separate recordings of these arias. And for a more recent recording of Song of India, there's Daniil Shtoda singing it in Russian tenor style on his Delos album.

Thanks for writing, and for reminding us that there's a whole, wonderful sequence of merchant arias in the opera. TIM

Thanks for the fine piece on Song of India. Your blogs with links to recordings are a great way to bring bite-sized classical music reviews to the public.

Many thanks for the thanks. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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