Sadko lived in the Russian city of Novgorod and was famed for his beautiful singing voice and his skill on the gusli, a wooden instrument shaped like a wing. His music won the favour of Tsar Morskoi, the Lord of the Sea, who brought him great fortune... but his adventures did not end there.
Our recording features the wonderful Gusli playing of Olga Shishkina and we would like to thank Olga for giving us permission to use her lovely music.
Read by Elizabeth. Version by Bertie. Duration 16 min.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
The ancient city of Novgorod is older than Russia itself. If you visit it now, you can still see its scarred white-washed cathedral, St. Sophia, with its domes that are shaped like the turbans of an Eastern sultan. The red walls of its Kremlin run up and down the hill, while below flows the broad River Volkva that freezes over in winter.
Many centuries ago, when Yaroslav the Wise was prince of this holy city, there lived among its people a musician, whose name was Sadko. His nimble fingers plucked the strings of the wing-shaped instrument called a gusli, and those who heard him sing compared his voice to that of Orpheus who charmed open the gates of the Underworld.
Sadko made his living by playing at the wedding celebrations and birthday parties of the wealthy merchants of Novgorod. The merchants were not the finest connoisseurs of music. They paid him with the leftovers of their feasts, or if he was lucky, with coins. There were occasions when Sadko had no work, no money, and little food. At those times he would seek inspiration for his music from nature. On one such day, he sat by the shore of Lake Ilmen, and sang to himself.
He sang of the loveliness of the lake and compared its blue waters to the eyes of the girl he was yet to meet and marry.
When he had finished his sweet, heart-felt song, he laid down his instrument on the grass. He closed his eyes and felt the sun on his face. A gushing sound caused him to open them again. He stared into the middle of the lake where the water was swirling round into a great whirlpool. The whirling waters began to form the features of a face, wise and old, surrounded by flowing hair and a long beard, surmounted by a tall crown. The face became more and more real until at last Sadko was left in no doubt that he was looking at Tsar Morskoi, the King of the Sea. He fell to his knees to honour the apparition. Then the lips of the watery face began to move, and the voice of Tsar Morskoi rose out of the lake.
“We thank you, musician, for delighting our guests below the surface with your performance. We wish to reward you. Listen to this secret, and heed it well. Next time you return to this lake, cast a net three times into the water, and on the third occasion you shall pull out a golden fish. Use this secret wisely, and you shall have a rich reward.”
When he had finished speaking, the waters washed over the apparition and the face shimmered and dissolved into nothing more than a few ripples. Sadko remained kneeling for sometime afterwards, for his legs seemed to have lost all their strength as he was so overcome by what he had seen and heard.
He returned to his garret in the city, wondering whether too much sun had been the cause of the vision. He wearily climbed the steps to the garret that served for his home, fell asleep on his mattress, and dreamed of food. But his fortune did not take long to turn, because the following morning the richest merchant in Novgorod sent his servant to the musician’s door. He invited him to grace a feast with song and story that very evening.
Sadko’s voice and skill had never been on finer form than that night – not that many of the diners took much notice of his artistry as he passed among the diners and sang. For them, one musician was much the same as another. When they had consumed a fair amount of food and drink, the merchants grew more and more boastful, as was their habit. Some bragged of their wealth, some of their fine horses, some of their noble pedigree, others of their beautiful women. At last the host of the feast asked Sadko if he too would like to speak of his greatest pride.
Sadko, however, replied, “I have no money, no horse, no family, no woman that I can boast of. I am but a poor musician. My only possession is my instrument.”
There was contemptuous laughter around the room, and one of the loudest-mouthed merchants said, “Any cat can sing on a spring evening. Surely you must have something more worthwhile than music to speak of?”
For a moment, Sadko could not think how to reply, and the laughter grew more uproarious. Then he remembered the words of Tsar Morskoi – Use this secret wisely, and you shall have a rich reward.
“Wait, wait!” he called out. "I have something that not one of you possess. It’s a fish with fins made of gold that can swim."
There were calls for him to show this remarkable fish, and when he protested that he could not, for it was still swimming in Lake Ilmen, there was yet more laughter.
“But I speak the truth,” he shouted, not knowing where his courage came from, “I and only I can catch it, and if any of you will join me in a wager, I shall prove it to you tomorrow.”
Because the merchants were in fine spirits, many of them were willing to bet large sums that the musician could not catch the golden fish, even though he himself had nothing to wager in return.”
The following day, towards sunset, Sadko cast his net into Lake Ilmen, and pulled it out empty. The merchants who were watching shrugged their shoulders. He cast the net in a second time, and again pulled it back empty. One or two of the merchants began to walk away. Sadko cast his net a third time, and now, just as the Tsar of Sea had foretold, he pulled out a fish with golden fins.
That was the moment that Sadko made his fortune. The merchants may have been a boastful lot, and they may not have been all that cultured, but a merchant of Novgorod was as good as his word. Sadko had won the bet, and they paid up handsomely.
Now he had made it good, and the musician became a merchant. He moved into a fine villa; he married a beautiful woman, and his ships sailed the seas carrying his goods. Some time later, he travelled abroad on a business trip. As he was crossing the sea, a wild storm tossed his ship on the waves. Even the captain of the ship was white with fear.
“Tsar Morskoi is angry, and he will sink us unless we give him a offering,” he declared. The rich men on board threw gold and jewels into the water, but it did nothing to appease the sea god. As he slid from one side of the ship to the other, Sadko realised that it was he whom the Tsar Morskoi wanted. Not once since he had become a rich man had he returned to the shores of Lake Ilmen to play for his benefactor. In fact he had given up music almost altogether and carried his gusli round with him, more as a lucky charm than an instrument! Now all those on board would drown because of his ingratitude. In a moment of remorse and anger with himself, Sadko leaped over the side of the ship holding his gusli in his hand, and sank beneath the waves.
All was calm below the surface of the sea, and deep down at the bottom, Sadko found himself before the throne of Tsar Morskoi, and all around the coral reef swam his eleven daughters. He began to play his gusli, because he was certain that was the reason he had been summoned to this underwater palace. The Tsar floated up from his throne and began to dance, looking like a giant octopus. When the merriment was at an end, the Tsar invited Sadko to choose one of his lovely daughters to marry. He thought of his wife, back on the dry land, and was reluctant to choose – but one of the daughters whispered to him, “Pick me, and I will show you the way home.”
As she was no less lovely than any of the others he indicated that he wished to marry her.
“A good choice,” exclaimed the Tsar. “This daughter of mine is the River Volkva that flows by your home.”
Later that night, in Novgorod a young boy found the body of Sadko washed up on the river bank. His gusli was still strapped to his back. At first he thought that the man was drowned, but then he belched up river water, and the boy called for help. Sadko revived and returned to his home and family, and from then on, he never neglected to play his gusli for the Tsar of the Sea.