Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

1844 1908

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Composer

Biography

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the group of Russian composers named ‘The Five’ during the late 19th century. He is remembered as an outstanding orchestrator and is best known for his orchestral worksScheherazade and Capriccio Espagnole as well as 15 operas.

Rimsky-Korsakov composed his first piece at the age of ten, but it was literature that had a real impact on his youth. He enrolled in the Naval College in St. Petersburg but kept music lessons as part of his education. It was in 1861, at the age of 17, that his music al life took off. He met the musician Balakirev, who became his new teacher and who introduced him to other composers, Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui. He started to attend workshops on Russian nationalistic music.

The composers that Rimsky-Korsakov associated believed in the development of a Russian nationalistic style of composition. Although he had huge respect for Western music, he was also interested in the creation of Russian music by finding inspiration in folksongs, fairy tales and the use of exoticism melodically, rhythmically and harmonically.

By 1867, Rimsky-Korsakov had composed several songs as well as his Overture on Three Russian Themes and a Fantasia on Serbian Themes. It was at the Slavonic Congress during the same year, that the group of composers became known as Moguchaya kuchka, ‘The Five’, also translatable as ‘The Mighty Handful’, as penned by the music critic Vladimir Stasov.

The Five met regularly during the 1860s and organised musical evenings and had discussions about musical style. Music critics cited Rimsky-Korsakov as the most talented of the five and began to be labelled a ‘symphonist’, although he often attempted to emulate the composing style of his friend Mussorgsky. In spring 1868 he composed his first opera, Pskovityanka (‘The Maid of Pskov’), which was to be his first of 15.

In the following decade, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered a position at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, a landmark in his career. This was not viewed favourably by the majority of the group because of their anti-conservatory approach to music. They did indeed see themselves as ‘amateur’ musicians. Only Borodin welcomed this move. Soon after beginning in his new position, he married Nadezhda Purgol′d, an amateur pianist who became her husband’s lifelong musical assistant. She helped him to prepare four-hand piano pieces by rehearsing together with him and challenged him musically and intellectually throughout his life.

Rimsky-Korsakov occupied himself with various meticulous non-compositional projects in the 1870s. Although he was a distinguished composer and teacher, he wished to re-educate himself in music and devised a strict self-education study plan: first, contrapuntal exercises, then fugues and chorales, nexta cappella  choruses, and finally, a cantata. Then he set on revising everything he had composed prior to 1874. He also spent some time compiling two collections of Russian folk melodies.

The Russian Symphony Concerts were inaugurated and hosted by M.P. Belyayev, a wealthy musical philanthropist as a forum for young Russian composers to have their works performed. The idea was actually Rimsky-Korsakov’s – he had become aquainted with Belyalev and attended weekly salons known as Les Vendredis at his home. Some of the best known characteristically Russian symphonic music were premiered at these concerts: at the opening concert, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bald Mountain and he composed Scheherazade, Capriccio Espagnole and the Russian Easter Festival Overture specifically for them. Other composers whose works were featured at these concerts included Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Glazunov.

Rimsky-Korsakov was dismissed from his position at the conservatory due to his part-taking in riots at the 1905 Revolution. A liberal by nature, he felt it his duty to stand up for his students - he believed somebody had to protect the students' rights to demonstrate, which was not taken favourably by his superiors, especially as disputes and wrangling between students and authorities were becoming increasingly violent.

Rimsky-Korsakov died in 1908 and was buried close to Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Stasov.

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