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The Russian Composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Works and Life

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Overview

  • Born: 1844 - Tikhvin, Russia
  • Died: 1908 - LiubenskRussia
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, choral, band, song

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a prolific Russian composer and prominent member of “The Five”, born in Russia in 1844. Apart from his most renowned occupation as a composer, he was also a teacher and an editor of music. After producing gems like Scheherazade and The Snow Maiden, Rimsky-Korsakov passed away in 1908. 

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: The Master of Orchestration

    Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov came from a family with aristocratic roots. While his father was a liberal who worked for the government, his mother was quite educated and was good at the piano. At the age of 12, moving to St. Petersburg, the young boy joined the naval academy, which was his dream. Subsequently, he started learning the piano under a number of music educators, notably Fyodor Kanille, a pianist, and then Mily Balakirev, who helped Rimsky-Korsakov write his very first piece, the Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 1(1861-65) which was performed in St. Petersburg in 1865. 

    The composer’s graduation from the naval academy in 1862 led to his journey to America aboard the ship Almaz. This was during the height of the American Civil War, and setting up anchor all along the ports from New York City to Washington inspired him to go on and write pieces like Sadko (1896), and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900). These were reminiscent of one or another kind of aquatic element. The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) is another brilliant example of his prowess.

    Rimsky-Korsakov composed the Fantasia on Serbian Themes, Op. 6, in 1867, and it debuted that year in St. Petersburg. Citing this composition, Vladimir Stasov, a musical critic remarked that Russia finally had its “moguchaya kuchka” or “The Mighty Handful” of native composers, which referred to Rimsky-Korsakov, along with four other eminent composers who were Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, and Alexander Borodin. This group gradually came to be known as “The Five.” It was in one of their meetings that Rimsky-Korsakov met his wife-to-be, Nadezhda, whose rich soprano vocal talents enamored him. Consequently, the two got married and had seven children together. 

    Among his works from this period were The Second Symphony (1868) and The Maid of Pskov (1872).  The Maid of Pskov was a description of Russian history during Ivan the Terrible’s rule, the primary character, while Sadko was characteristic of a fairytale with random and vibrant images of waves, marking Eastern themes as one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s preferences. 

    In 1871, as a young genius, he was appointed as a teacher at St. Petersburg Conservatory. This was more due to his fame than actual talent in compositional instruction, as the composer himself wrote in his autobiography “Chronicle of My Musical Life” (1909) that he was not qualified for it. 

    With a view to the completion of his personal musical education, Rimsky-Korsakov started a study regimen for himself, focusing on the fugue and counterpoint. This program ended when, in 1875, Tchaikovsky approved ten of the younger composer’s fugues and found them exquisite. 

    Rimsky-Korsakov resigned from naval service in 1873, accepting the charge of military bands instead, as an instructor. The virtuoso’s first professional performance was at St. Petersburg in 1874, where his Symphony No. 3 was staged. That very year, he accepted the post of director of the Free Music School in St. Petersburg and stuck to it till 1881.  

    Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden (1881) was based on a fairytale by Alexander Ostrovsky. It’s about natural forces, mythical creatures, and real people. 

    The years 1883 through 1894 saw the composer as a conductor at the court chapel under Balakirev, following which, he became the Russian symphony’s Chief Conductor of Concerts until 1900. Rimsky-Korsakov’s venture into the human psyche produced pieces of the likes of Mozart and Salieri (1897) and The Tsar’s Bride (1898). 

    Rimsky-Korsakov was also involved in the editing of Mussorgsky’s scores, leading to major changes, which was a departure from the older composer’s style. These attempts also led to a rewrite of “Khovanshchina”, one of Mussorgsky’s operas. Rimsky-Korsakov’s edits are also present in other artists’ works, such as those of Borodin.  

    A serious critic of his own work, Rimsky-Korsakov was always revising and improving his compositions. Apart from the already mentioned Mozart and Salieri and Servilia (1902), the composer mainly concentrated on operas with Russian or Slavic fairy tale aesthetics or historical importance. A good example of this is the Le Coq d’or or The Golden Cockerel (1909).

    Capriccio Espagnol (1887) is another example of Rimsky-Korsakov’s marvelous orchestral skills. Additionally, his opera, Scheherazade Op. 35, is directly adapted from the 1001 Nights, and its titles like Festival at Baghdad and The Young Prince and the Young Princess are magnificent renditions of the enigmatic composer's groundbreaking orchestral talents.

    To go deeper into his particular works, special mention may be made of The Flight of the Bumblebee from The Tale of Tsar Saltan and Song of India from Sadko. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Principles of Orchestration” and “Practical Manual of Harmony” are utilized as instructive textbooks in Russian musical schools.

    Rimsky Korsakov's music borrows extensively from Russian folk melodies. His life-long pursuit of technical perfection led to the production of numerous academic pieces. He was known as both kind and a wonderful teacher, developing talented individuals such as Glazunov and Stravinsky. His music has little abstract form or structure and was primarily decorative with a bright ambiance and extraordinary tune.


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    Read about other Russian composers:

    Learn about the opera, "The Tale of Tsar Saltan." 

    Learn about the music "Flight of the Bumblebee" by Rimsky-Korsakov