Do you have a favorite song?
Or maybe a favorite singer, or musician?
We all love listening to music. Part of the reason is how powerful it can be. It can make you feel happy, right? Or sad? Or make you to want to get up and dance?
In today’s story, we’ll meet a harp player whose music was so inspiring… it shook the oceans.
This time, our story is called “Sadko and the Sea.” In Russia, they've been sharing versions of this folktale for centuries!
Voices in this episode include: James Konicek, Thom Whaley, Lakshmi Singh and Max Greenfield. Grown-ups, you can catch Max on the FX original series: “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” And you can hear Lakshmi Singh on your favorite public-radio station… bringing you the news on NPR.
This story was adapted by Jessica Alpert, Eric Shimelonis, and Rebecca Sheir. Original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis. Casting by Amy Lippens, CSA.
ADULTS! Print out this picture so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it!
Things To Think About After Listening
What’s a song that you especially enjoy? Find a grown-up you like to have fun with… and share your favorite song with them. You could play a recording — or even sing it! Talk about why you like this song so much: why it inspires you. And if your grown-up doesn’t know the song, maybe you can teach it to them and sing it--together!
NARRATOR: If you visit the country of Russia… you might visit a city called Novgorod. And if you visit the city of Novgorod, you’ll find… a river. It’s called the Volkhov River, and it flows right through the middle of town.
But once upon a time, there was no Volkhov River. The city of Novgorod had no rivers. It had lakes… including a wonderful, crystal-clear lake called Lake Ilmen. But the Volkhov River… it didn’t exist!
Well, it didn’t exist… yet.
This story is about how the Volkhov River came to be. It involves a musician, a harp… and the ruler of all the waters.
Here’s what happened.
Among Novgorod’s many, many citizens was a man... named Sadko.
Everyone called him “Sadko the Musician.” Because before Sadko’s father breathed his last breath, he taught his young son to play a kind of wooden harp called a “gusli." And by the time Sadko grew older, he could play the gusli more beautifully than anyone.
The wealthy merchants of Novgorod knew Sadko the Musician was the most gifted player around. So they hired him to play and sing at their celebrations and feasts. The only problem was: as the evening wore on, the revelers would get so caught up in their partying, they wouldn’t pay any attention to Sadko’s music!
SADKO: Well, I might as well keep playing. It’s a paycheck, after all, and I need to put bread in my belly! I just wish there were someone out there who truly appreciated the music I bring to the world!
NARRATOR: As it turns out… Sadko was about to get his wish.
You see, the day came when Sadko wasn’t invited to play at any celebrations or feasts.
SADKO: Wow – I actually have a night off! I think I’ll take my gusli down to Lake Ilmen and sing some songs. Just for me.
NARRATOR: So, he did. Sadko kept his gusli safe by wearing it on a rope around his neck. Clutching the rope and gusli tight to his chest, he made his way out to a rock by the shore of Lake Ilmen. As he watched the moon rise over the calm, clear water, he played and sang song after song.
As he did, he noticed the waters of the lake… were moving! First a ripple… then a swirl… next thing he knew, frothy white waves were crashing against the rock where Sadko was sitting!
SADKO: That’s odd. The more I play, the more the water rises and churns. I wonder what will happen if I play… faster!
NARRATOR: So, he did. And as the tempo of his music got faster, so did the movement of the water! Soon, a great whirlpool formed in the middle of the lake. Out of the middle rose… a man. A giant man, taller than the tallest steeple in Novgorod!
The whirlpool stopped as he began to speak.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Sadko the Musician! Is that you?
NARRATOR: Sadko saw the giant man had stormy gray eyes and a green, wavy beard… like seaweed… that flowed all the way to his waist. On the man’s massive head was a crown made of starfish.
Suddenly, Sadko realized who the giant man was.
SADKO: Oh my goodness! You’re the Tsar of the Sea! Ruler of all bodies of water! You’re king of everything, from oceans to lakes to rivers!
TSAR OF THE SEA: That’s right, Sadko the Musician! It is I, the Tsar of the Sea. And tonight, my daughters and I traveled all the way from our palace under the Caspian Sea. We came to this lake, Lake Ilmen [ILL-men], to hold a feast for the water elves and fairies who live here. When you started playing, we got up and danced, right there on the bottom of the lake! And I tell you: never have you seen such dancing!
NARRATOR: Sadko thought about how the waters had whirled and twirled as he played his gusli. It all made sense now! All the magical creatures at the bottom of the lake had been dancing! To his music!
Sadko bowed his head.
SADKO: Oh, honorable Tsar. I am flattered that you enjoyed my playing so much. It’s a pleasure to perform for those who truly appreciate music!
TSAR OF THE SEA: Sadko. I see you are not rich in gold, but you are rich in something even better: music. And to show you how much I appreciate that, may I offer… this reward.
NARRATOR: Sadko gasped as a sparkling gold net appeared on the rock beside him.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Take this net, Sadko, and cast it into the waters of Lake Ilmen. Whatever you catch… that is my gift to you.
NARRATOR: Sadko stared at the net. He could hardly speak.
SADKO: Thank you, Tsar of the Sea! Thank you!
NARRATOR: The Tsar of the Sea nodded and smiled.
TSAR OF THE SEA: You are most welcome, Sadko. There is just one thing I ask in return.
SADKO: Anything, Tsar of the Sea! Anything!
TSAR OF THE SEA: Alright. Promise me this: that you will come to my palace under the Caspian Sea, and play for me and my daughters. Some day soon.
NARRATOR: Sadko could hardly believe his ears. After all his years of entertaining rowdy merchants, the thought of playing for royalty… royalty who appreciated music… made his head spin!
SADKO: Of course, Tsar of the Sea! Of course! It would be my honor!
TSAR OF THE SEA: Good.
NARRATOR: And with that, the Tsar of the Sea slowly sank beneath the water, and disappeared.
SADKO: Gosh! Was that a dream? Am I asleep? I can’t be. The Tsar of the Sea: I saw him with my own eyes! And this gold net: I’m feeling it with my own fingers! I guess it wouldn’t hurt to cast it into the lake. I mean, that’s what the Tsar wanted me to do, after all…
NARRATOR: So Sadko reached out and cast the net into the lake. Instantly, the net grew so heavy, Sadko had to use every muscle in his body to pull it back in.
SADKO: (sounds of effort as he pulls the heavy net back to shore)
NARRATOR: As soon as he dragged the net up onto the shore, he saw where all the weight had come from.
SAKDO: A treasure chest!
NARRATOR: The treasure chest was wooden, and bound in brass. And when Sadko pried it open, what do you think he found inside?
That’s right: treasure! Sea treasure! Every kind imaginable: shimmering pearls, iridescent shells, twinkling aquamarine … a huge pile of treasure, glimmering in the moonlight.
SADKO: Wow. With riches like these, I’ll never have to play at those merchants’ rowdy feasts ever again! Hey – I know what I’ll do. I’ll become a merchant myself! I’m sure the Tsar of the Sea wouldn’t mind if I sold one or two of these treasures and bought myself a stall at the marketplace. My days of worrying about putting bread in my belly are over!
NARRATOR: Sadko was about to close the chest and carry it away when one of the treasures caught his eye. It was a greenish-blue piece of aquamarine; it almost seemed to glow. Picking up the gemstone, Sadko noticed it had a familiar… shape.
SADKO: A harp! It looks like a harp! Like a gusli!
NARRATOR: Sadko untied his gusli from the rope he wore around his neck and set the gusli down on the ground. He took the rope and wound it around the piece of glowing aquamarine, turning it into a necklace. Then he threw the glowing greenish-blue necklace into the greenish-blue water of the lake.
SADKO: This is for you, Tsar of the Sea, in thanks for the gift you gave me. I will come back and play for you. I will!
He sold some of his sea treasures to buy a stall at the marketplace. Soon, nobody called him Sadko the Musician. He was so busy buying, selling and trading, they now called him Sadko the Merchant! Before long, he had purchased a ship and hired a crew, and was sailing the seas to trade his goods in lands far, far away.
One summer day, Sadko was sailing back to Russia after a long voyage. As the ship moved across the Caspian Sea, Sadko decided to rest in his cabin. He was lying on his bed when something in the corner caught his eye.
SADKO: My harp! My gusli!
NARRATOR: The gusli was dusty and dirty after sitting neglected for so many years. Sadko couldn’t remember the last time he had played it!
So Sadko walked up to the deck of the ship… and began… to play.
His fingers felt rusty at first, but before long they loosened up. The most beautiful music began to flow across the ship and out to sea. Sadko’s crew gathered to watch and listen. The music was so sweet it was like they were hypnotized!
Then… all of a sudden… they felt a great bump! The ship… had lurched to a stop! Right in the middle of the Caspian Sea!
The crew stumbled to the ground.
SADKO: What’s happening! Why aren’t we moving?
NARRATOR: The captain scrambled to his feet and looked around.
CAPTAIN: I don’t know what’s going on, sir! We were moving right on course, and our sails are filled with wind! We must have gone aground!
SADKO: But that’s impossible! We’re in the middle of the Caspian Sea! And these waters are deep!
CAPTAIN: Well, we could put on more sails. Hear that, men? More sails!
NARRATOR: The masts of the ship groaned and bent, but still… the ship did not budge. The crew looked at one another with frightened eyes. Some of the men began to shake.
SADKO: Hey! Hey! What is everyone so scared about?
NARRATOR: The captain shrugged his shoulders.
CAPTAIN: The crew, sir… they think it’s the Tsar of the Sea. They think he wants something from us.
NARRATOR: Now, you have to understand. Many years had gone by since Sadko had met the Tsar of the Sea. Many years had gone by since he’d made his promise to come back and play for the Tsar and his daughters. In fact, by now, Sadko had forgotten all about that promise.
SADKO: Well, if the Tsar of the Sea wants something, let’s give it to him! A chest of gold, perhaps. That’s an offering fit for a king!
NARRATOR: So the crew took a chest filled with gold coins and tossed it into the sea. But still… the ship stayed motionless.
SADKO: So, the Tsar of the Sea isn’t satisfied by such riches, eh? What could possibly be more rich than gold?
NARRATOR: That’s when… all of a sudden… Sadko remembered the Tsar’s words… from so many years ago:
TSAR OF THE SEA: Sadko, I see you are not rich in gold, but you are rich in something even better: music.
SADKO: (realizing, to himself) Of course!
NARRATOR: Without a word, Sadko grabbed his gusli and climbed onto the railing of the ship.
SADKO: Men, it is the Tsar of the Sea who’s stopped our ship. But he stopped it… for me. He’s reminding me that I have forgotten a promise I made to him long, long, ago. Now, it is time for me to make good on that promise.
NARRATOR: And with that, he took a deep breath, leaped off the railing, and he and his gusli splashed into the sea. Immediately, the ship sprang forward and sailed swiftly back toward the harbor.
Meanwhile, Sadko sank down, down, down... past willowy fronds of seaweed… past brightly-colored fish blowing bubbles. Miraculously, he found he was able to breathe underwater!
When he reached the bottom of the Caspian Sea, he saw a grand palace. Sadko clutched his gusli as he entered a great hall. There… sitting high on a throne shimmering with shells… was the Tsar of the Sea, his long green beard waving gently in the water.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Sadko of Novgorod! I was hoping I got your attention! My daughters and I have waited a long time to hear you play your music in our palace under the sea.
NARRATOR: Sadko noticed that on either side of the Tsar sat many young women – all of them with seaweed-like hair and eyes that sparkled like jewels.
SADKO: Great Tsar… princesses… I’m sorry I didn’t come to you sooner. I let my quest for riches get the better of me. I forgot about the richest thing of all: music! So now, I am here, and now, I will play.
NARRATOR: The Tsar smiled and rose from his throne.
TSAR OF THE SEA: And I… will dance.
NARRATOR: Sadko started plucking a peaceful tune. The Tsar of the Sea swayed back and forth. This went on for a few minutes, until:
TSAR OF THE SEA: Faster! Play faster!
NARRATOR: So, Sadko played faster. As the rhythm grew more frantic and furious, the Tsar of the Sea began to jump and twist around.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Faster! Play as fast as you can!
NARRATOR: Sadko was having so much trouble keeping up with the Tsar of the Sea that soon he was playing out of tune. But the Tsar didn’t notice. As he shook and shimmied, the water around him began to swirl…. faster and faster until up on the surface of the sea there rose a great storm! Waves crashed against the shore, and ships were tossed about.
SADKO: (still playing) Good Tsar, I think I should stop. My music, your dancing – we’re causing all kinds of tumult up on the-
TSAR OF THE SEA: No! No! Keep playing! Faster! Faster!
NARRATOR: Sadko played so fast his fingers grew numb. But he kept on plucking.
Soon, he felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. Still playing, he turned his head and saw one of the daughters of the Tsar.
VOLKHOVA: Sadko, my father’s dancing will bring great destruction to the ships and cities of the Caspian Sea!
SADKO: (talking while playing) I know! I know! But what can I do? Every time I try to stop, he orders me to keep going! And faster, at that! I can’t say no to the Tsar of the Sea!
VOLKHOVA: Listen to me. Sadko… you must break the strings of your gusli.
SADKO: (talking while playing) Break the strings of my – are you serious?
VOLKHOVA: Serious as the storm raging above us right now! Break the strings of your gusli and tell my father you have to find new ones. Tell him you must return to the city of Novgorod to get them.
SADKO: (talking while playing) And you think he’ll let me go?
VOLKHOVA: I know my father well. He will let you go… but only if you take one of his daughters with you. (pause) I must be that daughter.
NARRATOR: She began to walk away when Sadko called after her.
SADKO: (talking while playing) How will I know whom to ask for? What is your name?
NARRATOR: The Tsar’s daughter turned around. That was when Sadko noticed something familiar tied around her neck. It was a rope… attached to a glowing greenish-blue piece of aquamarine, one shaped like a harp.
VOLKHOVA: My name… is Volkhova. Ask for me… and all will be well.
NARRATOR: Sadko played for a minute longer. Then, one by one, he laid his fingers across the strings of his gusli. And, one by one… he broke them.
Immediately, the Tsar of the Sea stopped dancing. Though the waters became calm, the Tsar was anything but! In fact... he was furious.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Sadko! Why did you stop playing?
SADKO: Oh, great Tsar. The strings of my gusli are broken. I must return to the city of Novgorod for new ones.
NARRATOR: The Tsar took a deep breath. He stroked his long, wavy beard.
TSAR OF THE SEA: (calmer now) I see. Well, you may go... but you must bring one of my daughters with you. She will make sure you play for me again. Come: choose which one.
NARRATOR: Sadko looked down the line of the Tsar’s daughters.
SADKO: There. She is the one I choose.
TSAR OF THE SEA: Volkhova!! A very fine choice. Now go, you two, and fix those strings!
NARRATOR: Volkhova led Sadko out of the great hall and into a small room. In it, was a bed shaped like a clamshell.
VOLKHOVA: Sadko, you must stay here and rest. Then we will go together to Novgorod.
SADKO: Thank you, Volkhova. I am rather exhausted after all that playing!
VOLKHOVA: Of course you are! But, before you sleep, I must tell you: I have loved your songs ever since you played for our feast in Lake Ilmen… the celebration we held with the water elves and the fairies. Your music is the most beautiful thing I have ever heard, Sadko. I hope you will play for me always.
NARRATOR: Sadko was so touched by Volkhova’s words, he blushed.
SADKO: Oh, Volkhova! That is so kind of you to –
VOLKHOVA: (interrupting) But wait. There’s one more thing, Sadko. When I say ‘I hope you will play for me always’… it is not under the sea that you should play.
NARRATOR: Sadko was confused.
SADKO: Where is it, then? If not under the sea?
NARRATOR: Volkhova smiled.
VOLKHOVA: It is in the bright world… above.
NARRATOR: And with that, she disappeared.
Sadko drifted into a deep sleep. He couldn’t tell whether minutes, hours or days had gone by when he woke up again. As he lay on his back, he noticed he was no longer in the bed shaped like a clamshell. In fact, he was no longer in the palace of the Tsar of the Sea! Because instead of seeing rippling water, his eyes focused on something else entirely:
SADKO: The sky! That’s the bright blue sky, right there above me! Where am I?
NARRATOR: Sadko sat up and looked to the right. Then he looked to the left.
SADKO: (dumbfounded/amazed) Could it be?
NARRATOR: Much to Sadko’s surprise, he was sitting outside the walls of the city of Novgorod. And beside him…? Flowed... a river.
SADKO: But wait! Novgorod doesn’t have a river!
NARRATOR: Sadko made his way to the water’s edge. He saw the river was broad and deep. It flowed as if it had always been there.
As he peered more deeply into the clear water, something caught his eye: a glowing flash of greenish-blue. It was the harp-shaped piece of aquamarine, tied to Sadko’s rope!
SADKO: (realizing) Well, I’ll be. Volkhova!
NARRATOR: And so, that’s how the city of Novgorod got its river: the great Volkhov River. The Volkhov flows into another river, and onto the Caspian Sea… where the Tsar of the Sea has his grand palace.
So, you see, the Tsar’s daughter, Volkhova… she never returned to her father. She took all the waters that flooded when the Tsar danced up that raging storm, and she brought those waters together, into a river.
As for Sadko, he never went back to the Caspian Sea, either. Instead, his merchant ship sailed up and down the Volkhov River, while he sat on the deck and played his gusli.
The Tsar of the Sea still was able to dance… but now he danced gently, to sweet music he heard from far away… sweet music that Sadko the Musician played for the river that loved his songs.