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Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sheherazade

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (March 18, 1844–June 21, 1908) was a Russian composer, a member of the group of composers known as The Five, and a master of orchestration, whose best-known orchestral compositions are staples of the classical music repertoire. Rimsky-Korsakov was born the second son of a substantial landowner on March 18, 1844, in Tikhvin, near Novgorod, 120 miles east of Saint Petersburg, Russia, into an aristocratic family with a long line of military and naval service. His mother played the piano a little, and his father could play a few songs on the piano by ear. Beginning at six, he took piano lessons from various local teachers and showed a talent for aural skills. Although he started composing by age 10, Rimsky-Korsakov preferred literature over music. He developed a poetic love for the sea without ever having seen it, which, along with prompting from his brother Voin, encouraged the twelve-year-old to join the Imperial Russian Navy. He studied at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in Saint Petersburg and, at eighteen, took his final examination in April 1862.

While at school, Rimsky-Korsakov took piano lessons from a man named Ulikh and developed a love for music, fostered by visits to the opera, and, later, orchestral concerts. Ulikh perceived that he had serious musical talent, and recommended another teacher, Feodor A. Kanille (Théodore Canillé). Beginning in the autumn of 1859, Rimsky-Korsakov took lessons in piano and composition from Kanille, through whom he was exposed to a great deal of new music, including that of Mikhail Glinka and Robert Schumann. In November 1861, Kanille introduced the 18-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov to Mily Balakirev. Balakirev in turn introduced him to César Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky; all three of these men were already known as composers, despite only being in their 20s. Balakirev encouraged Rimsky-Korsakov to compose and taught him the rudiments when he was not at sea. When he showed Balakirev the beginning of a symphony in E-flat minor that he had written, Balakirev insisted he continue working on it despite his lack of formal musical training. By the time Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a two-year-and-eight-month cruise aboard the clipper Almaz in late 1862, he had completed and orchestrated three movements of the symphony. He composed the slow movement during a stop in England, and mailed the score to Balakirev before going back to sea. He purchased scores at every port of call, along with a piano upon which to play them, and filled his idle hours studying Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration.

Once back in Saint Petersburg in May 1865, Rimsky-Korsakov’s onshore duties consisted of a couple of hours of clerical duty each day. At Balakirev’s suggestion, he wrote a trio to the scherzo of the E-flat minor symphony, which it had lacked up to that point, and reorchestrated the entire symphony. Its first performance came in December of that year under Balakirev’s direction in Saint Petersburg. A second performance followed in March 1866 under the direction of Konstantin Lyadov, father of composer Anatoly Lyadov). Under Balakirev’s mentoring, Rimsky-Korsakov turned to other compositions. He began a symphony in B minor, but felt it too closely followed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and abandoned it. He completed an Overture on Three Russian Themes, based on Balakirev’s folksong overtures, as well as a Fantasia on Serbian Themes that was performed at a concert given for the delegates of the Slavonic Congress in 1867. In his review of this concert, nationalist critic Vladimir Stasov coined the phrase Moguchaya kuchka for the Balakirev circle, usually translated as “The Mighty Handful” or “The Five.” Rimsky-Korsakov also composed the initial versions of Sadko and Antar, which cemented his reputation as a writer of orchestral works. His Second Symphony, subtitled Antar, was completed in 1868.

In the fall of 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov moved into Voin’s former apartment, and invited Mussorgsky to be his roommate. That same year, the 27-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov became Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation or Orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, as well as leader of the Orchestra Class. He retained his position in active naval service, and taught his classes in uniform. Aware of his technical shortcomings,Rimsky-Korsakov consulted Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky who was serving as Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov eventually became an excellent teacher and a fervent believer in academic training. He revised everything he had composed prior to 1874, even acclaimed works such as Sadko and Antar. The score of his Third Symphony, written just after he had completed his three-year program of self-improvement, reflects his hands-on experience with the orchestra. Professorship brought Rimsky-Korsakov financial security, which encouraged him to settle down and to start a family. In December 1871 he proposed to Nadezhda Purgold, with whom he had developed a close relationship over weekly gatherings of The Five at the Purgold household. They married in July 1872, with Mussorgsky serving as best man. The Rimsky-Korsakovs had seven children. One of their sons, Andrei, became a musicologist, married the composer Yuliya Veysberg and wrote a multi-volume study of his father’s life and work.

In the spring of 1873, the navy created the post of Inspector of Naval Bands and appointed Rimsky-Korsakov. His public debut as a conductor was at an 1874 charity concert where he led the orchestra in his third symphony. Also in 1874, he transcribed forty Russian songs for voice and piano from performances by folk singer Tvorty Filippov. This collection was followed by a second containing 100 songs, supplied by friends and servants, or taken from rare and out-of-print collections. He also edited the orchestral scores by pioneer Russian composer Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857) in collaboration with Balakirev and Anatoly Lyadov. In 1875 he sent ten fugues to Tchaikovsky, who declared them impeccable. In the summer of 1877, Rimsky-Korsakov thought increasingly about the short story May Night by Nikolai Gogol. By winter May Night took an increasing amount of his attention; in February 1878 he started writing in earnest, and he finished the opera by early November. He wrote the opera in a folk-like melodic idiom, and scored it in a transparent manner much in the style of Glinka. Nevertheless, despite the ease of writing this opera and the next, The Snow Maiden, from time to time he suffered from creative paralysis between 1881 and 1888. He kept busy during this time by editing Mussorgsky’s works and completing Borodin’s Prince Igor (Mussorgsky died in 1881, Borodin in 1887).

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he became acquainted with budding music patron Mitrofan Belyayev (M. P. Belaieff) in Moscow in 1882. By the winter of 1883 Rimsky-Korsakov had become a regular visitor to the weekly “quartet Fridays” (“Les Vendredis”) held at Belyayev’s home in Saint Petersburg.
In March 1884, an Imperial Order abolished the navy office of Inspector of Bands, and Rimsky-Korsakov was relieved of his duties. He worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as a deputy until 1894, which allowed him to study Russian Orthodox church music. He also taught classes at the Chapel, and wrote his textbook on harmony for use there and at the Conservatory. Belyayev, who had already taken a keen interest in the musical future of the teenage Alexander Glazunov, rented a hall and hired an orchestra in 1884 to play Glazunov’s First Symphony plus an orchestral suite Glazunov had just composed. This concert and a rehearsal the previous year gave Rimsky-Korsakov the idea of offering concerts featuring Russian compositions, a prospect to which Belyayev was amenable. The Russian Symphony Concerts were inaugurated during the 1886–87 season, with Rimsky-Korsakov sharing conducting duties with Anatoly Lyadov. He finished his revision of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and conducted it at the opening concert. The concerts also coaxed him out of his creative drought; he wrote Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture specifically for them.

In November 1887, Tchaikovsky arrived in Saint Petersburg in time to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts. One of them included the first complete performance of his First Symphony, subtitled Winter Daydreams, in its final version. Another concert featured the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Third Symphony in its revised version. In March 1889, Angelo Neumann’s traveling “Richard Wagner Theater” visited Saint Petersburg, giving four cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen there under the direction of Karl Muck. The Five had ignored Wagner’s music, but The Ring impressed Rimsky-Korsakov. After hearing these performances, Rimsky-Korsakov devoted himself almost exclusively to composing operas for the rest of his creative life. Wagner’s use of the orchestra influenced Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration,beginning with the arrangement of the polonaise from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that he made for concert use in 1889. He was so impressed by the size and shape of the Wagnerian orchestra that he used this in his next opera, Mlada, although he also incorporated the more exotic musical and dramatic devices he had witnessed in the Hungarian and Algerian cafés in Paris during the Universal Exhibition of that summer.

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 led to a medical diagnosis of neurasthenia. Crises in the Rimsky-Korsakov household may have been a factor—the serious illnesses of his wife and one of his sons from diphtheria in 1890, the deaths of his mother and youngest child, as well as the onset of the prolonged, ultimately fatal illness of his second youngest child. He resigned from the Russian Symphony Concerts and the Court Chapel and considered giving up composition permanently. After making third versions of the musical tableau Sadko and the opera The Maid of Pskov, he closed his musical account with the past; he had left none of his major works before May Night in their original form. The sudden passing of Tchaikovsky in 1893 presented a twofold opportunity—to write for the Imperial Theaters and to compose an opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s short story Christmas Eve, the success of which encouraged him to complete an opera approximately every 18 months between 1893 and 1908—a total of eleven during this period. He also started and abandoned another draft of his treatise on orchestration, but made a third attempt and almost finished it in the last four years of his life. He worked on his first revision of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 1895. In the next decade operas such as Pan Voyevoda (1903), Kastchei. The Immortal (1902), the dramatic prologue Vera Sheloga (starring the great bass Chaliapin), and the mystical and extraordinary opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905), all appeared.

In 1905, demonstrations took place in the St. Petersburg Conservatory as part of the 1905 Revolution, which were triggered by similar disturbances at St. Petersburg State University, in which students demanded political reforms and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Russia. A lifelong liberal politically, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he felt someone had to protect the rights of the students to demonstrate, especially as disputes and wrangling between students and authorities were becoming increasingly violent. As a result, approximately 100 Conservatory students were expelled and he was removed from his professorship. Not long after Rimsky-Korsakov’s dismissal, a student production of his opera Kashchey the Deathless was followed not with the scheduled concert but with a political demonstration, which led to a police ban on Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. Partly in defiance of his dismissal, Rimsky-Korsakov continued teaching his students from his home. Several faculty members of the St. Petersburg Conservatory resigned in protest, including Glazunov and Lyadov. Eventually, over 300 students walked out of the Conservatory in solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov. By December he had been reinstated under a new director, Glazunov. Rimsky-Korsakov retired from the Conservatory in 1906.

The political controversy continued with Rimsky-Korsakov’s 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 Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, and even then it was performed in an adapted version. In April 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a pair of concerts in Paris, hosted by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, which featured music of the Russian nationalist school. The concerts were hugely successful in popularizing Russian classical music of this kind in Europe, Rimsky-Korsakov’s in particular. The following year, his opera Sadko was produced at the Paris Opéra and The Snow Maiden at the Opéra-Comique. Beginning around 1890, Rimsky-Korsakov had suffered from angina. While this ailment initially wore him down gradually, the stresses concurrent with the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath greatly accelerated its progress. After December 1907, his illness became severe, and he could not work. On June 21, 1908 he died from a progressive throat and lung disease at his Lubensk estate near Luga (modern day Plyussky District of Pskov Oblast), and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg, next to Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Stasov.

A strict disciplinarian in artistic matters, Rimsky-Korsakov was also a severe critic of his own music. He made constant revisions of his early compositions, in which he found technical imperfections. As a result, double dates, indicating early and revised versions, frequently occur in his catalog of works. He was at his best and most typical in his descriptive works. Rimsky-Korsakov believed, as did fellow composer Mily Balakirev and critic Vladimir Stasov, in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian folk song and lore along with exotic harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements in a practice known as musical orientalism, and eschewed traditional Western compositional methods. With two exceptions (Mozart and Salieri [1898]), and Servilia [1902]) the subjects of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas are taken from Russian or other Slavic fairy tales, literature, and history. However, Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques after he became a professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky-Korsakov maintained an interest in harmonic experiments and continued exploring new idioms throughout his career. However, he tempered this interest with an abhorrence of excess and kept his tendency to experiment under constant control. He composed dozens of art songs, arrangements of folk songs, chamber and piano music. Also he wrote a body of choral works, both secular and for Russian Orthodox Church service. The latter include settings of portions of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Rimsky-Korsakov’s editing of works by The Five is significant. Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain is still the version generally performed.

The following works by Rimsky-Korsakov are contained in my collection:

Allegro in BbM for String Orchestra (1899).
Capriccio Espagnole, op. 34 (1887).
Christmas Eve (1895): Suite.
Fantasia on Serbian Themes, op. 6 (1867).
Invisible City of Kitezh: (Suite).
Mlada Suite: Procession of the Nobles.
Overture on Russian Themes, op. 28 (1866).
Pan Voyevoda (1904): Suite.
Piano Concerto in c#m, op. 30 (1883).
Russian Easter Festival Overture, op. 36 (1867).
Sadko, Musical Picture, op. 5 (1867).
Sheherazade Symphonic Suite after the Thousand and One Nights, op. 35 (1888).
The Snow Maiden (1881): Suite including Dance of the Tumblers
Symphony No. 1 in em, op. 1 (1865).
Symphony No. 2, Symphonic Suite Antar, op. 9 (1868).
Symphony No. 3 in CM, op. 32 (1873).
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, op. 57 (1900): Suite including Flight of the Bumblebee.
The Tsar’s Bride (1898): Overture.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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