Rimsky the revolutionary? It seems hard to believe, since, by all accounts, he was a disciplined and reserved man - his military education and three years aboard the man-o'-war Almaz as a midshipman probably had something to do with that - and of noble birth to boot, but it's true. The events that gripped Russia in 1905 turned Rimsky into a sort of revolutionary celebrity. To hear him tell it, in his Chronicle of My Musical Life, he was caught up in the wave of revolutionary fervor and swept along by events largely out of his control. Upheaval began in January of that year, on "Bloody Sunday," when troops fired on a crowd of defenseless workers and clergymen who had gathered at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to ask the Tsar for reforms. Students at the Conservatory, where Rimsky was a professor, soon joined the ensuing riots, and the composer expressed his support for them. As a result, he was removed from his professorship and the rioting students were expelled; several other prominent figures - the composers Alexander Glazunov and Anatol Liadov among them - and hundreds of other students left the Conservatory in a show of solidarity. After months of unrest all across Russia and a massive, 10-day-long general strike, the revolution ended that October, when the Tsar issued a manifesto that guaranteed basic civil liberties and established an elected parliamentary body, the duma. The Conservatory was reconfigured with Glazunov as its director, and Rimsky was reinstated.
Dubinushka actually began life during another, earlier period of upheaval in Russian history, the years that followed Tsar Alexander II's emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The serfs had expected freedom, but instead they remained as beholden to and dependent on big landowners as ever. In 1865, the poet V. I. Bogdanov captured their frustration in verses that tell of laborers who use the tool of their work - the dubinushka, or "little oak stick" - to overthrow their oppressive masters. The text was joined to a traditional folk melody and became a popular song of resistance. Rimsky heard workers marching along St. Petersburg's Tverskoi Boulevard singing it during the 1905 revolution and set about composing a work for orchestra based on the tune. It begins as a jaunty march, with brass and winds dominating the texture. The composer creates a contrasting section by reworking the melody for the strings, recasting it more lyrically before gradually bringing back other instruments and building to a climactic close for the full orchestra.
– John Mangum