“Don’t make me listen to all these horrors or I shall end up liking them!” – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Along with Borodin and Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of the influential circle of Russian composers known as “The Mighty Five”. Young men at the time of the group’s formation, they were all self-trained amateurs for whom music was, at least to begin with, a secondary profession. Of the five, Rimsky-Korsakov arguably left the greatest mark, with several of his most celebrated works, like the ever popular Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol, becoming staples of the orchestral repertoire.

Scheherazade, Op. 35, 1st Movement, played by the Moscow City Symphony, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski

Rimsky-Korsakov was born near Tikhvin, in Novgorod Province, a town steeped in Russian folk heritage and rich in cultural traditions. He had an elder brother, Voin, 22 years his senior, and came from an aristocratic family. Both his parents were amateur musicians and spotted Rimsky-Korsakov’s talent quickly, when at the age of 3 he would accompany his father’s piano playing on a drum. Despite his precocious talent however, Rimsky-Korsakov showed only a cursory interest in music as a child and had his heart set on a different dream: he wanted to join the navy.

Nevertheless, over time his love of music began to grow; he took lessons in school, where he discovered the music of Glinka and Schumann, who were to become formative influences, and began to attend operas and concerts. His high school music teacher introduced him to Balakirev, founder of “The Mighty Five”, through whom he met Cui and Mussorgsky, already well known composers by then. It was an exciting time for the young composer, who remarked of this period: “All at once I had been plunged into a new world, unknown to me, formerly only heard of in the society of my dilettante friends. That was truly a strong impression.”

Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Barry Wordsworth

Having always assumed that he would follow in his family’s tradition of military service, Rimsky-Korsakov was by this time already enlisted in the Russian navy. Slowly however the possibility of a future as a musician began to take shape, and with the encouragement of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov applied himself more seriously to composition. He began composing his first symphony, parts of which were completed during a three-year naval tour around the world. His isolation from the musical world during this time began to take its toll however, and he later recalled “Thoughts of becoming a musician and composer gradually left me altogether… distant lands began to allure me, somehow, although, properly speaking, naval service never pleased me much and hardly suited my character at all.”

Following his tour, Rimsky-Korsakov moved back to St Petersburg and gradually began to immerse himself once more in music. Having grown close with his fellow members of “The Mighty Five”, Rimsky-Korsakov began living with Mussorgsky in his brother Voin’s apartment. With only one piano to share between them, they agreed that Mussorgsky would use it in the mornings while Rimsky-Korsakov worked on orchestration, allowing him to make use of the piano when Mussorgsky left for his job in the civil service in the afternoon. The coexistence proved fruitful, with the pair regularly exchanging ideas and inspiring one another. During this time Rimsky-Korsakov composed the beautiful Sadko, a tone poem based on Slavic folklore, which became a great success that he would later turn into an opera. The orientalism evident in Sadko is typical of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.

In 1871 Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to become a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory. This was somewhat contrary to the philosophy of “The Mighty Five”, who emphasized the importance of intuition over education, but Rimsky-Korsakov accepted the position. He slowly began to embrace Western compositional methods and incorporate them into his own during his time at the Conservatory, remarking that he had become “possibly its very best pupil, judging by the quantity and value of the information it gave me!”

Rimsky-Korsakov’s newfound respect for Western musical practices invited a mounting sense of disapproval from his nationalist contemporaries, who saw him as renouncing his Russian musical heritage. Even Borodin, a fellow member of “The Mighty Five”, criticized Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 3 in C Major, Op. 32, complaining of a “feeling that this is the work of a German Herr Professor who has put on his glasses and is about to write Eine grosse Symphonie in C.” Here is the first movement – do you think this is a fair criticism?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rimsky-Korsakov began to suffer from self-doubt. The extensive use of counterpoint in his third symphony was derided as academic and inauthentic, and he was further discouraged when he discovered that even Anton Rubinstein, a composer opposed to the nationalist philosophy, had no kind words for his music. Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov to offer his moral support, yet privately confided to his wealthy patroness “Apparently he is now passing through this crisis, and how it will end will be difficult to predict. Either a great master will come out of him, or he will finally become bogged down in contrapuntal tricks.” Perhaps a slight trace of schadenfreude exists in these words from Tchaikovsky, whose artistic differences with “The Mighty Five” always created a certain tension. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest likened their relations to “those between two friendly neighboring states… cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests.”

Following this period Rimsky-Korsakov suffered a creative drought, but when he emerged from it he composed a number of his greatest masterpieces, including in 1888 his Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 dedicated to the memories of Mussorgsky and Borodin who had died in 1881 and 1887 respectively. Here it is played by Anima Eterna and Jos van Immerseel.

In later life his music began to take on a different character, becoming more introspective and psychological in nature. An example of this is his opera Mozart and Salieri, based on a short play by Pushkin, depicting the apocryphal myth that Salieri poisoned Mozart out of jealousy for his music. He also conducted extensive revisions of many of his earlier works, leaving almost nothing in its original form. Indeed, it was in Rimsky-Korsakov’s nature to constantly revise and refine music, a service which he performed not only for his own works but for his peers as well. It is for example his brilliantly orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain that is most frequently performed.

During the 1905 Revolution, student demonstrations demanding political reforms took place at the St Petersburg Conservatory. When the school’s administration began contemplating a heavy-handed response to the protesters, Rimsky-Korsakov, a lifelong liberal, sided with the students in an open letter speaking out against interference by the Conservatory. As a consequence, he lost his professorship and before long his works were also banned by the police. After widespread public outrage and over 300 students walking out of the Conservatory in a show of solidarity, Rimsky-Korsakov was finally reinstated. His last major work, the opera The Golden Cockerel, was a poignant criticism of Russian imperialism, suppressed by censors from being performed until after his death.

The Golden Cockerel Fantasy, arranged by Efram Zimbalist, played by Antal Zalai and Jozsef Balog

Rimsky-Korsakov will always be remembered as one of history’s greatest orchestrators. Never selfish with his talents, he took it upon himself to write a treatise on the subject during his professorship at the St Petersburg Conservatory, which, true to form, he then went on to revise numerous times throughout the remainder of his life. His work, The Principles of Orchestration, was ultimately published posthumously by his son-in-law.

And, finally, I thought I’d end this post with Rimsky-Korsakov’s most instantly recognizable work:

Flight of the Bumblebee from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Op. 57,  played by the Scottish National Orchestra

Spotify Playlist:

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