NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was the full name but I am going to refer to him as Rimsky if you don’t mind. He was the youngest of The Five and best known for Scheherazade, Spanish Caprice and the Flight of the Bumble Bee. Of his life it was known that he had been a sailor and finished up a professor at St Petersburg Conservatory. His reputation was that of a brilliant natural orchestrator who had been a teacher to such great orchestrators as Stravinsky and the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. Which is not a lot to know for someone with such a long varied career.
Rimsky was a man to compare with Winston Churchill! Churchill was notorious for crossing the floor of the House of Commons, not once but twice. Rimsky switched from a Kuchkist nationalist to a conservative academic and then returned to the nationalist fold with all the academic skills so despised and denigrated by the Five.
It was round about the end of the War that I made my first encounter with Rimsky-Korsakov. It was through Paul Temple, a detective in a radio serial written by Francis Durbridge which kept our ear to the wireless set each week. But it wasn’t the skills of Paul Temple or his wife, Steve, I remember so much as the signature tune which came from the middle section of the second movement of Scheherazade. My blood (together with its warfarin additives) tingles still on hearing it. Later they changed the opening tune to Coronation Scot by Vivian Ellis which I fondly recall but not with the same spell in which Scheherazade left me. Then about the same time was a coster cockney comedian called Leon Cortez whose speciality was recounting monologues of Shakespeare plots – “there was this geezer called Macbeth” – who came out with “Lumme, its Rimsky Corsetsoff”. Well, I thought it funny at the time.
Rimsky was from an aristocratic family with military and naval connections. His brother, Voin, who was 22 years older than him, was a well-known navigator and explorer. They were not exactly a musical family. His mother managed the piano a little and his father could play a few songs by ear. From age six Rimsky took piano lessons and displayed some aural skills but showed little interest otherwise although he did start composing at 10. Still it was literature which was his preference from which he claimed to have developed a literary love for the sea without ever having seen it. Encouraged by Voin the 12-year-old Rimsky joined the Imperial Russian Navy studying at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in Saint Petersburg for the next six years. The school director was none other than his brother, Voin, who encouraged Rimsky’s musical training. This was largely from piano teachers who could perceive Rimsky’s potential. Although not keen on the discipline, he did develop a love for music itself particularly from the time he spent at the opera. When he was 15 his new teacher, Kanille, introduced Rimsky to the music of Schuman and particularly also that of Glinka which opened up for him the beginning of his interest in Russian music. When he reached 17 in 1861, Voin cancelled any further lessons. Still, Kanille continued to give his lessons to Rimsky privately every Sunday. In November of that year Kanille introduced Rimsky first to Balakirev and then in turn to César Cui and Mussorgsky. All three were in their twenties but already known as composers. Rimsky, not yet 18 and still to graduate, which he did the following year, was plunged into a new world and found himself bowled over. Balakirev, always glad to pounce upon new talent, encouraged Rimsky to compose and, though opposed to formalistic teaching, implanted his own wisdom. Rimsky started to sketch ideas for the first movement of a symphony which he showed to Balakirev. Despite Rimsky’s lack of experience or of any formal musical training Balakirev insisted that he should continue with the symphony, much as he would do also with Borodin. This was the very start of Rimsky’s entry into the world of composition. He had actually written all three movements before the year was out but 1862 was to be the year of his passing his examinations at the School of Maritime Studies. So now Mr Midshipman Rimsky-Korsakov was ready to pack up his manuscript score in his new kitbag to set sail on a voyage of discovery to last two years and eight months aboard the clipper ship, Almaz. He worked on the slow movement when docked in England and was able to post the score to Balakirev before resuming his round the world trip. At first, his work on the symphony kept Rimsky occupied during his voyage. At each port of call he would purchase scores for study as well as buying a piano to play them on board. He spent his idle hours studying Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration. His aspiration to carry on with composing however began to fail him after over two years at sea on a round the world circumnavigation.
It was in May 1865 that Rimsky, now aged 21, placed his feet on terra firma at St Petersburg and took up onshore duties which stretched to a couple of hours of clerical duty each day. He wrote that he felt stifled and could not concern himself with music. Then in September Balakirev suggested he should slowly get to accustom himself to music before fully plunging in; then to write a scherzo to add to the symphony. Having done that Rimsky then re-orchestrated the whole thing which then got its first performance. From suggestion by Balakirev to finish with performance had taken him three months. If that was not plunging I do not know what would have been. Their correspondence has shown that not only was Balakirev correcting Rimsky’s work but ideas for the symphony were being dictated by him and that he would correct or re-compose at the piano what Rimsky had himself written. Yet, as with Borodin, Rimsky went along with this, at least to start with. Rimsky recorded that “Balakirev had no difficulty in getting along with him. “At his suggestion I most readily rewrote the symphonic movements composed by me and brought them to completion with the help of his advice and improvisations”. Later on Rimsky found it necessary to break away from what had become a stifling influence. But he never lost his admiration for his mentor. Other compositions began to follow, an Overture on Three Russian Themes, in the wake of the overture of the same name by Guess Who? There followed a Fantasia on Serbian Themes which was the work that Rimsky contributed at the concert for the Slavonic Congress in 1867.which gave birth to the appellation of “The Mighty Handful”. These works and the original versions of Sadko and Antar, were already giving Rimsky the reputation of an orchestrator.
Sadko is said to be the first Russian symphonic poem and not to be confused with his later opera of the same name. It was written in 1867 and revised two years later. In between in 1868 came Antar. Both works are inspired by fairy tales and written in the new oriental fashion. Sadko is the more magical. Antar was originally designated as his symphony number two but later he re-labelled it as a symphonic suite as he also did later with Scheherazade. Like that work, Antar is written in four movements but, apart from that feature, Rimsky did not consider it to be symphonic. There is however a link, an idée fixe, running through the work which gives it cohesion. 1868 was the year that Berlioz made his last trip to Russia and Rimsky had hoped to gain an introduction. He wasn’t able to do so but he was there when Berlioz conducted his Symphonie Fantastique and Harold In Italy, both works containing an idée fixe in each of their movements. This inspired Rimsky to do the same with Antar. However Rimsky himself pointed out that, whilst both the Berlioz works were symphonic with their first movements written in sonata form, Antar, despite its common thread, was too loosely connected
Rimsky’s relations with the other members of the group were a much happier affair. They socialized and took on the role of panel critics to each other. He became closely friendly with Borodin and stated of him that he had always found him astonishing. In 1871, Rimsky took over Voin’s former apartment, and invited Mussorgsky to be his flatmate. Theirs was an engaging and productive arrangement, each working at different times, with Mussorgsky writing the Polish act and the Forest scene from Boris Godunov whilst Rimsky finished his first opera, the Maid of Pskov.
1871 was an important turning point in the life and career of Rimsky in several ways. Unlike the other members of the Five, whilst he continued to support its nationalist agenda, it had become clear to him that he was lacking in proper tuition. What he had learned so far was to orchestrate based on intuition and he felt desperately the need for proper instruction. Hostility to academic learning, particularly with Balakirev at the helm, had become for them an article of faith. For them the development of a Russian school could not be achieved in the conservatoire whose methodology ran counter to the natural purity of Russian music. If anything this argument was a blind to cover Balakirev’s own lack of musical tutelage. That Rimsky should consider extra mural tuition was opposed by the circle as heresy. Mikhaíl Azanchevsky had taken over that year as director of the Conservatory and was seeking new blood to widen the conservatory’s appeal. He offered to pay generously for Rimsky’s services as a tutor in orchestration whilst Rimsky was seeking a position which would for him instil the fundamental basics he lacked. Clearly it was politics at work. For the conservatives Rimsky was the least criticized member of the Five and the one to target. In inviting him to teach at the Conservatory they might hope to show that they were open and receptive to students traditional and modern
Balakirev, perhaps seeing the way the wind was blowing, now encouraged Rimsky to accept the post in the hope that he might become the cuckoo in the nest and convince his students to join the Free School. Rimsky gladly took up the conservatory offer which would pay well. This could have been written by Frederick Forsythe.
1871 would be of significance with two other momentous events. First it was the year that Balakirev had a breakdown and removing himself from the musical scene for five years and effectively from the group to which he never would return even after ending his existence as a reclusive railway ticket clerk. This development effectively freed the others to shake off the shackles in which Balakirev had wittingly or unwittingly placed them.
The other event of significance was that with the financial security from his new professorship Rimsky was able to propose to Nadezhda Purgold, with whom he had developed a close relationship over weekly gatherings of The Five which had taken place in her father’s house. They married in July 1872, with Mussorgsky as Rimsky’s best man. Nadezhda had attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in the mid-1860s, studying piano and now became both a musical and matrimonial partner to Rimsky much in the same way as Clara Schumann had been with Robert.
Although now ensconced as a professor at the Conservatory Rimsky’s knowledge of musical theory was rudimentary. He knew little or nothing of harmony, the names of chords or counterpoint. He therefore turned for advice to Tchaikovsky who himself was conservatory trained and had taught at the Moscow conservatory. Tchaikovsky’s advice to him was to study. This he did assiduously. To prepare himself and keep himself just one step ahead of his students, Rimsky took a three-year sabbatical from composing and studied at home between lectures at the Conservatory, teaching himself from textbooks and followed a strict regimen of composing contrapuntal exercises, fugues, chorales and a cappella choruses. Rimsky observed that whilst he was teaching at the Conservatory he reckoned that he himself had become possibly its very best pupil by the measure of the information he had gleaned. His teaching syllabus was that of the orchestra which led him to conduct for the first time. After three years he was a convinced convert in academic training and his first ventures on returning to composition were to rewrite everything he had previously produced including Sadko and Anthar. He followed this with his third symphony in which he was able to display the counterpoint he had been studying.
One should not forget that Rimsky was still an active naval officer. As such he remained always on duty. It was because of this that he wore naval uniform even when giving his lectures. The naval authorities were aware of his talents and in 1873, a year after his marriage, they created the civilian post especially for him of Inspector of Naval Bands. This allowed him to resign his commission and hang up his officer’s uniform. “Henceforth I was a musician officially and incontestably.” Professionally one might add. As Inspector, Rimsky’s duties were to visit naval bands throughout Russia and to overseer the bandmasters and review the bands’ repertoire. This led to his writing his own text book on orchestration. In 1884, over ten years later, the post of Inspector of Naval Bands was abolished. One wonders how the Russian Navy kept afloat after that.
Once Rimsky had emerged from his rigours of academic learning he encountered all kinds of difficulties. His former colleagues looked down upon him and he went through a composer’s block. He received however praise from Anton Rubinstein which was a poisonous kiss to receive. He turned to Tchaikovsky for help and moral support although Tchaikovsky secretly confessed in his letters to Madame von Meck, his long term correspondent, that he doubted if Rimsky would make it. To get himself going again Rimsky went on an exploration just as Glinka and Balakirev had previously done, that of searching out Russian folk song and producing two books of them. He was also commissioned, alongside Balakirev and Lyadov, by Glinka’s sister to edit Glinka’s orchestral works in order to preserve them. Balakirev, a control freak to the end and even beyond the grave, wanted to rewrite Glinka. Rimsky was less intrusive and it was his methods which were to prevail. He was doing for Glinka what he would ultimately do for Borodin and Mussorgsky in adding his growing professional skills to their more primitive amateurism. Later he would be frowned upon for removing the raw unschooled expression of their inspiration. Still no greater respect could there be that one man devote so much of his life to do so much for his friends.
Once having mastered the difficulties of counterpoint Rimsky’s aim seems to have been to move back to his comfort zone of Russian Easter festivals and oriental snake charming combining the subject matters with his newly acquired academic skills. In 1877 he began work on an opera, May Night, based on a short story by Gogol to be followed by The Snow maiden. Excluding Mlada, which had been a collaborative effort with other members of the Five, Rimsky wrote 13 operas. Oddly enough they are not played here in the West and we only know them from their glittering orchestral extracts.
In the 1880’s Rimsky hit fallow periods. The Five by then had begun to disintegrate as a collective entity. Mussorgsky had died in 1881 as would Borodin later in the decade. However, Balakirev had re-emerged but no longer a leader of men but as a loaner. In 1883 he was appointed to the position of director of the Imperial Chapel. He began sending pupils to Rimsky for training in musical theory and he then appointed Rimsky his deputy at the Imperial Chapel, a position Rimsky held for ten years. This gave Rimsky, a confirmed atheist, the opportunity for deeper study of liturgical music. Whatever were the schismatic differences, the wounds had healed.
At much the same time Rimsky got to know the wealthy Russian industrialist, J P Belyayev, a nouveau riche, who set out to be a patron of concerts and recitals and who would eventually set up his own publishing house. He had started off by promoting a concert for the first performance of the first symphony by the 18 year old Glazunov. He had also created a series of Friday quartet recitals, “vendredis”, which Rimsky regularly attended. Belyayev had pulled in also round and about him other self made industrialists, particularly engineers building the Russian railways, whose aim was to promote Russian music in an age of growing russification in the arts. Their wealth and power did not however qualify them to make the big artistic decisions. They needed the composers for that and the decision making was left to the triumvirate of Glazunov, Lyadov and Rimsky who became the effective chiefs for the promotion of Russian music. The Russian Concert Society was born and conducted by Rimsky. This immediately gave him an injection after a period of composer block. He started off with his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare (or bald) Mountain and then within one year had produced Scheherazade, his Spanish Caprice and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. These have been lastingly popular and display his natural orchestral talent. Without them there would be very little Rimsky-Korsakov in our concert halls. The chiefs decided on the award of an annual Glinka Prize chosen by the composers in charge and the recipients of which would include Rachmaninov and Lyapounov, a long time pupil of Balakirev. The composer group, known as the Belyayev Circle, grew and did much the same as had the Balakirev Circle thirty years before towards the advance of Russian music. The one big exception was that whilst the five had maligned academic training, the Belyayev Circle had on the contrary promoted it.
Rimsky and Tchaikovsky also began to move closer together. They had met again in 1887. Earlier they had been on opposing sides of the great divide and Rimsky stated that there always remained a sense of uneasiness between them with Rimsky a little jealous of Tchaikovsky’s greater popularity. Still Tchaikovsky did agree to conduct a series of concerts at the Russian Musical Society which would include the revised version of Rimsky’s Symphony No 3. It came as a shock to Rimsky in 1893 on learning that Tchaikovsky had suddenly died from cholera. It also came as a shock for Rimsky when Tchaikovsky’s body lay in an open coffin at the flat. The regulations for cholera stipulated the corpse was to be kept in a closed coffin. Here mourners were kissing Tchaikovsky’s head. This led to the perpetual mystery of the circumstances of the death. When Rimsky wrote about it later in his memoirs his remarks were censored.
At about this same time Rimsky had another blockage. He realized he was also becoming conservative in his outlook. He was aware of new developments but he did not take to them. He did not like Richard Strauss and when he heard Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in Paris he said to Diaghilev “Don’t make me listen to all these horrors or I shall end up liking them!”
Rimsky continued with his duties at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. There, there was a student revolt as part of the 1905 failed revolution to seek greater powers for the Duma. The students had no single leader and Rimsky was elected to be their respected spokesman particularly as he was a lifelong liberal. He signed letters demanding the resignation of the principal which led to 100 students being sent down and Rimsky dismissed as a professor. The students then mounted a production of Rimsky’s opera, Katschey which led to a police ban on Rimsky’s music. Such was the outrage that Glazunov and Lyadov resigned; protests build up round the country even from people who knew no music. Eventually Rimsky was reinstated and Glazunov appointed the new principal.
Rimsky, apart from his conservatoire teaching, also had private pupils who included Stravinsky. Nicolai Malko recalled Rimsky addressing his students at the beginning of the term. “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.” In April 1907, Rimsky conducted two concerts in Paris, promoted by Diaghilev, featuring music of the Russian nationalist school. These concerts were hugely successful in popularizing Russian music in the West. The following year, his opera, Sadko, was produced at the Paris Opéra and The Snow Maiden at the Opéra-Comique. We all know that it would be Stravinsky who became Diaghilev’s general in 1909 with the Firebird. Yet of all the works produced by Diaghilev his favourite was always Scheherazade. Might there have been a place for Rimsky had he lived. It is doubtful. In 1908 his time was up. He had come a long way since sailing in the wake of Magellan and Drake nearly 50 years earlier. He had been suffering from angina from the early 1890’s and now, following the loss of a son, and pole-axed by the events of 1905, he made his final bow. He was a great natural orchestrator to whom the verb “showcase” would apply long before the 2012 London Olympics turned the word into a meaningless cliché.