Sunday, March 6, 8844

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian: Nikolaj Andreevič Rimskij-Korsakov), also Nikolay, Nicolai, and Rimsky-Korsakoff, (March 6 (N.S. March 18), 1844 - June 8 (N.S. June 21) 1908) was a Russian composer, one of five Russian composers known as The Five, and was later a teacher of harmony and orchestration. He is particularly noted for a predilection for folk and fairy-tale subjects, and for his extraordinary skill in orchestration, which may have been influenced by his synesthesia. The first part of his surname, Rimsky, is due to the fact that some of his forefathers undertook a pilgrimage to Rome.

Rimsky-Korsakov was born at Tikhvin, 200 km east of St. Petersburg, into an aristocratic family. He showed musical ability from an early age. His parents did not appreciate his precocity, looking upon his music-making "as a prank."

Becoming a composer was considered unsuitable for someone of his family's social station and a rejection of the traditions of his class.

On his parents' insistence, he studied at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St. Petersburg and subsequently joined the Imperial Russian Navy. While at school he took piano lessons from a man named Ulikh,went to the opera and played four-hand piano music with his teacher and friends.

He developed a passion for symphonic music through attending concerts hosted by the Director of the Imperial Theaters.

Still, he later admitted, he was a 16-year-old child who passionately loved music and played with it as though it were a game or toy.

Ulikh saw, however, that Rimsky-Korsakov had serious musical talent and recommended another teacher -- Feodor A. Kanille (Théodore Canillé).

Beginning in the fall of 1859 Rimsky-Korsakov took lessons in piano and composition from Kanille, who exposed him to much new music, including Mikhail Glinka's and Robert Schumann's compositions.

When his brother, who was also in the navy and looked after his welfare, decided to cancel the lessons in September 1860, Kanille told him to continue coming every Sunday, not for formal lessons but to play duets and discuss music.

Then, in November 1861, Kanille introduced him to Mily Balakirev.

Balakirev encouraged him to compose and taught him when he was not at sea.

He also prompted Rimsky-Korsakov to enrich himself in other areas. "I heard from him, for the first time in my life, that one must read, must look after one's own education, must become acquainted with history, polite literature, and criticism. Many thanks to him for it!"

Through Balakirev he also met the other composers that would form "The Mighty Handful" (better known in English-speaking countries as "The Five"). He listened to their opinions and accepted them without question.

With their encouragement, he began considering a career in music.

In 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a three-year world cruise. He completed three movements of his Symphony No. 1 in the months previous to this.

Rimsky wrote the slow movement during a stop in England, then mailed the score to Balakirev before going back to sea.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1865, Balakirev suggested Rimsky-Korsakov renew work on the symphony. He did, writing a trio for the Scherzo and reorchestrating the whole work.

Balakirev conducted the successful premiere of the symphony in December, 1865.

Rimsky-Korsakov appeared on stage in uniform to acknowledge the applause (regulations demanded that officers remain in uniform even when off-duty). Seeing him, the audience was surprised a naval officer had written such a work.

Rimsky-Korsakov's naval duties now occupied only two or three of hours a day.

This left considerable time for both composition and a social life.

He completed the first version of his orchestral pieces Sadko (1867) and Antar (1868), and became friends with Alexander Borodin, whose music astonished him.

Rimsky spent time with Borodin, Balakirevand, increasingly, Modest Mussorgsky.

They critiqued one another's works-in-progress and sometimes also collaborated on new pieces. By the spring of 1868 their circle included the Purgold family, whose household became the center of musical evenings, where Balakirev and Mussorgsky played piano four-hands.

The middle of the three Purgold daughters, Alexandra, was a talented singer, and the youngest daughter, Nadezhda, was an accomplished pianist, who eventually would arrange Sadko and Antar for piano four-hands for the publisher Bessel.

In 1868 Rimsky-Korsakov also met Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, but because Tchaikovsky had been trained at the Western-oriented St. Petersburg Conservatory instead of by Balakirev, he "was viewed rather negligently if not haughtily by our circle."

At Balakirev's request Tchaikovsky played the opening movement of his Symphony No. 1. "[I]t proved quite to our liking ... although Tchaikovsky's Conservatory training still constituted a considerable barrier between him and us."

Rimsky-Korsakov would be even more impressed with the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 ("Little Russian"), at a January 7, 1873 gathering at his home. In this work Tchaikovsky would come closest, in its original version, to composing along the same principles as "The Five."

Nevertheless, as Tchaikovsky's brother Modest observed, relations between Tchaikovsky and The Five, including Rimsky-Korsakov, resembled "those between two friendly neighboring states ... cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests."

In the fall of 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov moved into his brother's former apartment, inviting Mussorgsky as a roommate. The working arrangement they agreed upon was that Mussorgsky used the piano in the mornings while Rimsky-Korsakov either copied or orchestrated something out. Mussorgsky left for his civil service job at noon. This left afternoons for Rimsky-Korsakov to use the piano. Time in the evenings was allotted by mutual agreement.

"That autumn and winter the two of us accomplished a good deal," Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, "with constant exchange of ideas and plans. Mussorgsky composed and orchestrated the Polish act of Boris Godunov and the folk-scene 'Near Kromy.' I orchestrated and finished my Maid of Pskov."

The Maid of Pskov proved difficult initially to have approved for performance by the Russian censors, and Rimsky-Korsakov had to actively lobby them on behalf of his opera. The biggest problem lay in one of the characters in his opera being Ivan the Terrible. An 1837 law prohibited depiction of the tsar in an opera.

This rule differed slightly for plays. In spoken drama, it was only rulers of the Romanov dynasty who were proscribed. When Rimsky-Korsakov questioned this discrepancy, he was told, "And suppose the Tsar should suddenly sing a ditty; well, it would be unseemly."

Rimsky-Korsakov circumnavigated the edict by appealing to a family friend, Navy Secretary N.K. Krabbe.

Krabbe in turn discussed the matter with the tsar's brother, Grand Duke Konstantin Nicholaevich.

As a result of this diplomacy, the censors allowed The Maid of Pskov to be staged—after some amendments.

This episode eased the way for Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov to be produced, though Mussorgsky also had to make changes to mollify the censors.

St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1900. Rimsky-Korsakov taught here from 1871 until his death.
In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov became Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation (orchestration) at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, as well as leader of the Orchestra Class.

Mikhaíl Azanchevsky, who had taken over that year as director, had wanted new blood to freshen up teaching in those subjects.

Balakirev, who had formerly opposed academicism with tremendous vigor, had encouraged him to assume the post. Nevertheless, Rimsky-Korsakov was painfully aware of his technical shortcomings, writing later, "I was a dilettante and knew nothing,..."

Moreover, he had come to a creative dead-end upon completing The Maid of Pskov and realized that developing a solid musical technique was the only way he could continue composing.

In his first years of teaching, he bluffed his way through classes, aided, he wrote, "by the fact that at first none of my pupils could imagine that I knew nothing; and by the time they had learned enough to begin to see through me, I had learned something myself!"

He was helped in this by his experience in the practical aspects of composition—his personal taste, sense of form and understanding of orchestral coloring.

Having been, he felt, undeservedly hired as a professor at the conservatory, he soon became one of its best pupils—"possibly its very best pupil," he wrote, "judging by the quantity and value of the information it gave me!"

Meanwhile, with Tchaikovsky's encouragement, he assiduously studied harmony and counterpoint at home. Within a few years, he became an excellent teacher and a fervent believer in academic training.

With Rimsky-Korsakov's professorship came financial security.

In December 1871 he proposed to Nadezhda Purgold. They married in July 1872; Mussorgsky was his best man. The Rimsky-Korsakovs would eventually have seven children. One of their sons, Andrei, would become a musicologist, marry the composer Yuliya Veysberg and write a multi-volume study of his father's life and work.

Nadezhda was to become a musical as well as domestic partner with her husband, much as Clara Schumann had been on her husband Robert.

Beautiful, capable, strong-willed and far better trained musically than her husband at the time they married, she proved a good critic of his work. She also arranged the second version of Antar for piano four-hands in 1875.

Even while a professor at the conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov remained in active service as a naval officer. In the spring of 1873, the navy remedied this situation. Rimsky-Korsakov was appointed to the new post of Inspector of Music Bands of the Navy Department. He was to inspect navy bands throughout Russia, supervising the bandmasters and their appointments, repertoire and quality of instruments. He would also be in charge of a complement of musician pupils who would be holders of navy fellowships at the conservatory. He was to write a study program for these students and to act as an intermediary between the navy and the conservatory.

The post came with a promotion to Collegiate Assessor. This would be a civilian rank. Rimsky-Korsakov would still be on the navy payroll and listed on the roster of the Chancellery of the Navy Department. Otherwise, he would no longer be considered under military service. "Henceforth I was a musician officially and incontestably," he wrote. "I was in ecstasy; so were my friends. Congratulations were showered on me."

His appointment encouraged him to fulfill a long-standing desire to familiarize himself with the construction and playing technique of orchestral instruments.

He delved into the subject headlong, purchasing and learning to play a number of instruments.

These studies in turn prompted him to write a textbook on orchestration.

He spent two years making notes, even studying texts by Tyndall and Helmholtz on the laws of acoustics.

While his realization of both the enormous scale of the task and the quickness with which his text could become outdated led him to give up work on it, he considered the knowledge amassed worthwhile. He applied it to his compositions and strove to give his conservatory students "a clear conception, if not a full knowledge, of instruments of the orchestra."

He used the privileges of rank to freely exercise and expand upon his knowledge. He orchestrated for military bands and arranged a number of works by other composers.

In March 1884, an Imperial Order abolished the navy office of Inspector of Bands, and Rimsky-Korsakov was relieved of his duties.

"Accordingly," he wrote, "my government service was confined exclusively the Chapel -- that is, the court Department."

He worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as a deputy. This post gave him the chance to study Russian Orthodox church music. He wrote his textbook on harmony for the classes he taught there after finding Tchaikovsky's book on the subject unsatisfactory.

Modest Mussorgsky felt Rimsky-Korsakov was a traitor for embracing academicism.

His studies and change in attitude on music education brought Rimsky-Korsakov the scorn of his fellow nationalists. They felt he was throwing away his Russian heritage to compose fugues and sonatas.

Alexander Borodin called it "apostasy," adding, "Many are grieved at present by the fact that Korsakov has turned back, has thrown himself into a study of musical antiquity. I do not bemoan it. It is understandable...."

Mussorgsky was harsher: "[T]he mighty Koocha had degenerated into soulless traitors."

Tchaikovsky fully applauded what Rimsky-Korsakov was doing, writing that he admired his artistic modesty and strength of character.

He also saw the danger Rimsky-Korsakov risked of letting too much academia choke off his natural gift for musical fantasy.

He wrote his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, "Either a great master will come out of him, or he will finally become bogged down in contrapuntal tricks."

Rimsky-Korsakov became acquainted with capitalist and budding music patron Mitrofan Belyayev (M. P. Belaieff) at the weekly "quartet Fridays" ("Les Vendredis") held at Belayev's home. Belayev had already taken a keen interest in the musical future of the teenage Alexander Glazunov, who had been one of Rimsky-Korsakov's composition students. In 1884, Belayev rented out a hall and hired an orchestra to play Glazunov's Symphony No. 1 plus an orchestral suite Glazunov had just composed, with the composer conducting.

Seeing however, he was not ready to do this, Rimsky-Korsakov volunteered to take his place.

This "rehearsal," as Rimsky-Korsakov called it, went well and pleased both Belayev and the invited audience.

Buoyed by the success of the rehearsal, Belayev decided the following season to give a public concert of works by Glazunov and others.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto was played, along with Glazunov's symphonic poem Stenka Razin.

Both the rehearsal the previous year and this concert gave Rimsky-Korsakov the idea of offering several concerts per year featuring Russian compositions.

He finished his revision of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and conducted it at the opening concert.


Capriccio Espagnol (1887)

Russian Easter Overture (1888)

Scheherazade (1888): I. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship

Mlada: Procession of Nobles (1890)


In addition, the Russian Symphony Concerts coaxed him out of his creative drought. He wrote Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol, and the Russian Easter Overture specifically for them.

He noted that these three works "show a considerable falling off in the use of contrapuntal devices ... [replaced] by a strong and virtuoso development of every kind of figuration which sustains the technical interest of my compositions."

In 1892 Rimsky-Korsakov suffered a second creative drought, brought on by bouts of depression and alarming physical symptoms -- rushes of blood to the head, confusion, memory loss and unpleasant obsessions.

The medical diagnosis was neurasthenia. Another cause for the depression may have been the serious illnesses of his wife and one of his sons from diphtheria in 1890, the deaths of his mother and youngest child plus the onset of the prolonged, ultimately fatal illness of second-youngest child. Sounds like good causes of depression, indeed.

Rimsky resigned from both the Russian Symphony Concerts and the Court Chapel, and considered giving up composition permanently.

Another death, ironically, brought about a creative renewal.

The passing of Tchaikovsky in late 1893 presented a two-fold opportunity -- to write for the Imperial Theaters and to compose an opera based on Nikolai Gogol's short story "Christmas Eve," a work on which Tchaikovsky had based his opera Vakula the Smith. Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve was a success and restored his creativity. He completed an opera approximately every 18 months -- a total of 11 between 1893 and 1908.


The Tale of Tsar Sultan: Act III Scene 1 Flight of the Bumblebee (1900)


In 1905 approximately 100 conservatory students were expelled for taking part in the February Revolution.

Rimsky-Korsakov sided with the students and was removed from his professorship. A police ban on Rimsky-Korsakov's work brought an immediate wave of outrage throughout Russia and abroad; liberals and intellectuals deluged the composer's residence with letters of sympathy.

Several faculty members resigned in protest, including Glazunov and Lyadov.[105] Eventually, over 300 additional students walked out of the conservatory in solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov. By December he had been reinstated, but the political controversy continued with his opera The Golden Cockerel. Its implied criticism of monarchy, Russian imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War gave it little chance of passing the censors. The premiere was delayed until 1909, after the composer's death Even then, it was performed in an adapted version.

Rimsky died in Lyubensk in 1908, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a prolific composer. Even in his leaner times, creatively speaking, he kept busy. "Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov didn't like each other and agreed on very few things," Shostakovich said, "but they were of one opinion on this: you had to write constantly. If you can't write a major work, write minor trifles. If you can't write at all, orchestrate something."

Rimsky-Korssakov continued to be interested in harmonic experiments and the exploration of new idioms, but this interest was coupled with a abhorrence of excess. Taking Glinka and Liszt as models, he progressed considerably in his use of whole tone and octatonic scales, developing them both in the "fantastic" sections of his operas. However, he kept his tendency to experiment under constant control. The more radical his harmonies became, the more he attempted to control them with strict rules—applying his "musical conscience," as he called it. In this sense, he was both a progressive and a conservative composer.

Rimsky-Korsakov's status in the West has long been based on his orchestral compositions. Best known among these are Capriccio espagnol, Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade.

In his decades at the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov taught many composers who would later find fame, including Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Ottorino Respighi.

Stravinsky, who studied privately with Rimsky-Korsakov before entering the conservatory, remembered that Rimsky-Korsakov would give him some pages of the piano score to an opera he had just completed. He was to orchestrate it. When he was finished, Rimsky-Korsakov would show him his own instrumentation of the same passage. As they compared each other's work, Rimsky-Korsakov would ask why he had orchestrated some passaged differently.

Whenever he could not do so, Rimsky-Korsakov would explain it for him.

Rimsky-Korsakov felt talented students needed little. Show them everything needed in harmony and counterpoint, direct them in understanding the forms of composition. Give them a year or two of systematic study in the development of technique, a few exercises in free composition and orchestration, and a good knowledge of the piano. Provided these steps were all done properly, studies would then be over.

He carried this attitude into his conservatory classes. Conductor Nikolai Malko remembered that Rimsky-Korsakov began the first class of the term by saying, "I will speak, and you will listen. Then I will speak less, and you will start to work. And finally I will not speak at all, and you will work."

Malko added that his class followed exactly this pattern. "Rimsky-Korsakov explained everything so clearly and simply that all we had to do was to do our work well."

Rimsky-Korsakov would sit at the piano in class, looking through all the exercises in counterpoint his students had brought. He played endless preludes, fugues, canons and arrangements. However, he refused to review a student's work if it was written in pencil. "I do not wish to go blind because of you," he would declare. (Dmitri Shostakovich would also insist that his composition students write their scores in ink.)

Because of Rimsky-Korsakov's fame, his classes were large. This irritated the 15-year-old Prokofiev, who wanted the master's undivided attention and had trouble breaking through the crowd. Nevertheless, he admitted that those students who knew how much they could learn from Rimsky-Korsakov got the benefit despite the crowding.

Rimsky-Korsakov's efforts in editing works by fellow members of The Five are significant. This effort was a practical extension of the collaborative atmosphere of The Five during the 1860's and 1870's, when they heard each other's compositions-in-progress and even worked together on them. It was also an effort to save works that would either languish unheard or become lost entirely. These include the completion of Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor (with Alexander Glazunov), orchestration of passages from César Cui's William Ratcliff for the first production in 1869, and the complete orchestration of Alexander Dargomyzhsky's swansong, The Stone Guest.

While this effort is laudable, it is also not without controversy, especially in the case of works by Modest Mussorgsky. After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov revised and completed several of Mussorgsky's works for publication and performance. In some cases these versions helped to spread Mussorgsky's works throughout Russian and to the West. However, in going over the scores of his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov allowed his "musical conscience" of avoiding what he considered musical over-experimentation or bad form to dictate his editing, just as he allowed it to control his own composing.

Because of this tendency, he has been accused of pedantry in "correcting" matters of harmony, etc., in the process. Rimsky-Korsakov may have foreseen this might happen over time when he wrote this statement:

If Moussorgsky's compositions are destined to live unfaded for 50 years after their author's death (when all his works will become the property of any and every publisher), such an archeologically accurate edition will always be possible, as the manuscripts went to the Public Library on leaving me. For the present, though, there was need of an edition for performances, for practical artistic purposes, for making his colossal talent known, and not for the mere studying of his personality and artistic sins.

Time seems to have proven Rimsky-Korsakov correct. Mussorgsky's musical style, once considered unpolished, is now valued for its originality. While Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain is still the version generally performed today, some of Rimsky-Korsakov's other revisions, such as that of Boris Godunov, have been replaced by Mussorgsky's original versions.

Rimsky-Korsakov had synesthesia, a condition in which normally separate senses are not separate but rather are cross-wired. In the case of Rimsky-Korsakov, he perceived colors associated with major keys, as follows:

C white
D yellow
E flat dark bluish-grey
E sparkling sapphire
F green
G rich gold
A rosy colored

[8854 Leos Janacek / 8844 Rimsky-Korsakov / 8843 Grieg]