Of all the great Russian nationalist composers of the latter part of the 19th century, Nikolai Andreievich Rimsky-Korsakoff (March 18, 1844 - June 21, 1908) stands second only to Mili Balakirev in his practical influence on the music created and preserved in that period. In so far as his own music is concerned, while some pieces have remained immensely popular, the bulk of his achievement is rarely heard today. Many people see him as the logical link between Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky.
Rimsky-Korsakoff was the second son of a substantial landowner who lived "in his own house" (as Rimsky-Korsakoff notes in his autobiography) on the outskirts of a small town, Tikhvin. Both his parents were musical and were quick to perceive that their son was unusually gifted; he had perfect pitch and excellent time and by the age of six he was having music lessons, but was not sufficiently enamored of music for it to supersede his love of books. In 1856 he was sent to the Naval College in St. Petersburg where he spent the next four years. He also began to go to the opera in St. Petersburg; struck first by Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Robert le Diable, he later discovered the joys of harmony through playing manuscripts of Mikhail Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila and began making his own piano arrangements of excerpts from a range of favorite operas.
By 1861 the 17-year-old was becoming increasingly engrossed in musical studies and exploring the concert repertoire as well as opera. This same year he was introduced by his tutor to Balakirev, then aged 24 and already the leader of a group of young composers, including César Cui, Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin. It was Balakirev who awoke in Rimsky-Korsakoff the ambition to become a composer, approving of his tentative sketches for a symphony and demanding that he complete it; even Nicolai's posting abroad (1862-65) did not dampen his ardor; he took the unfinished manuscript with him on his tour of duty. On his return to St. Petersburg he completed his symphony in time for its successful premiere under Balakirev's baton in 1865. Subsequent performances in 1866 confirmed his burgeoning reputation.
At this point he both idolized the domineering and opinionated Balakirev and was good friends with the younger and less musically trained Mussorgsky and Borodin. Still living what he termed the "life of a dilettante", Rimsky-Korsakoff was looked upon as a talented but unfocused musical amateur by his composer friends, but as a brilliant musical talent by his colleagues in the navy. He himself was only too aware of his own shortcomings, and his orchestral works at this time tended to be quite short – the Overture on Russian Themes (1866) was given a successful performance in the same year, while 1867's Sadko, taken over from Mussorgsky who had abandoned an earlier attempt to set the subject to music, was a short and brilliant exposition of memorable melodies, showing real flair in the orchestration – a talent for which he would later become world famous. His Second Symphony, subtitled Antar, was completed in 1868.
At this time he began to realize his dreams of returning to his first musical love – opera. While on holiday with Borodin on his country estate, he resumed work on Pskovitianka (The Maid of Pskov). As he recalled: "The picture of the impending trip to the dreary interior of Russia instantly brought an access of indefinable love for Russian folk life, for her past in general and for Pskovitianka in particular". The opera engaged his attention intermittently for the next three years, while he also embarked on his second musical career – arranging and orchestrating the works of other composers. The recently deceased Darghomizsky had entrusted the completion of his almost finished opera The Stone Guest to Cui and Rimsky-Korsakoff; Nicolai did the orchestration, thus beginning a career as a collaborator in the works of his deceased colleagues.
In 1871, in an extraordinary development, the "amateur" Rimsky-Korsakoff was offered the position of Professor of Composition and Instrumentation as well as leader of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire orchestra. After consulting Balakirev, the composer made his decision. As he comments in his reminiscences: "Had I ever studied at all, had I possessed a fraction more knowledge than I actually did, it would have been obvious to me that I could not and should not accept…that it was foolish and dishonest of me to become a professor. But I, the author of Sadko…was a dilettante and knew nothing". He took the job. With it came the awful realization of the depths of his ignorance, and for a while his creativity evaporated while he tried to develop what he felt to be a mature style. At this point in his life he felt secure enough to resign his naval commission, but was persuaded by Grand Duke Constantine to become instead inspector of naval bands.
The following year; Rimsky-Korsakoff, now 27, married Nadezhda Purgold; Mussorgsky was best man. In the same year he wrote his Third Symphony, a strangely formal affair which, in its original incarnation, was too concerned with the counterpoint, correct modulations and other formal matters which Rimsky-Korsakoff was desperately attempting to master for his professional peace of mind. As he consolidated his home and professional life, he found himself moving away from old colleagues: Balakirev, once a staunch atheist, had embraced religious mysticism and withdrawn almost entirely from his old circle of friends; Mussorgsky, in the first flush of success with Boris Godunov, had begun his slow physical and mental decline, brought on by alcohol.
In 1875, the year his daughter Sonia was born and his wife suffered a long illness, he began the editing and correction of Glinka's extant manuscripts, of which no definitive edition had been attempted since his death. By this time Rimsky-Korsakoff, now fully at ease with his own musical knowledge and techniques, had renewed his mission to bring more nationalistic traits into his music. These are very noticeable in the two operas which appeared next, May Night (1878) and The Snow Maiden, both of which dealt with specifically Russian themes and used old modes, folk-like melodies and nationalistic rhythms and scoring. The death of Mussorgsky in 1881 found Rimsky-Korsakoff once more realizing another composer's scores, spending nearly two years deleting, rescoring and editing the musical fragments and completed works he found among Mussorgsky's effects. This work, today somewhat controversial due to the extent to which Rimsky-Korsakoff departed from what Mussorgsky had composed, undoubtedly brought the composer's works into sharp focus in the public eye in the decades following his death. Without Rimsky-Korsakoff's reworking at Boris for example, the opera would not have achieved its status as a national treasure by the turn of the century. Equally, it was Rimsky-Korsakoff who made the first orchestral version of the piano work Pictures at an Exhibition, bringing it to the attention at concert-goers world-wide.
In 1883 the new Tzar, Alexander III, dismissed the old chapel musicians and appointed Balakirev as the new superintendent of the Court Chapel and Rimsky-Korsakoff as his aide. This led both of them into utterly unfamiliar territory, preparing choral music for the coronation and other important occasions. A favorite new prodigy, Alexander ("Sasha") Glazunov, was the young composer-acolyte who came to Rimsky-Korsakoff's aid in 1886 when the sudden death of Borodin left him with yet another disorganized heap of priceless unfinished compositions to put in order. Their major achievements were the performing version of Prince Igor and the realization of Borodin's unfinished Third Symphony, one movement of which Glazunov wrote down apparently from memory, having once heard Borodin play it on the piano.
Clearly all this work on other people's music slowed Rimsky-Korsakoff's own output considerably, and only by taking a break from his careful orchestration of Prince lgor during a summer holiday did he complete his sketches for Capriccio Espagñole, one of his most sparkling and delightful concert pieces. It is perhaps worth speculating whether the sublime melodies and scoring of the manuscripts he labored on for so long had a subliminal effect on the "editor" who was also a great composer, releasing a flood of ethnically-inspired music which, in the following year, would include his single most famous piece, the suite Schéhérazade (musically illustrating characters and stories from the Arabian Nights) and the buoyant Russian Easter Overture.
This peak in his middle years was achieved – as he himself commented – "without Wagner's influence". But Wagner's influence was brought to bear when Rimsky-Korsakoff became involved in the production of Der Ring des Nibelungen in St. Petersburg. The Ring made little impact on the audiences at the time, but Rimsky-Korsakoff was impressed by the size and shape of the Wagnerian orchestra and 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 the year after their return to St. Petersburg his family was struck by illness: first his mother died, then his wife and three of his children fell seriously ill, one of them dying while a second, Masha, remained critical. In summer 1892, the composer suffered what seems to have been a nervous breakdown, and was forced to take a prolonged break from music. In 1893 he had to deal with further illness, his son taking months to recover from a dangerous infection, while Masha continued to ail from consumption, dying that summer in Yalta.
Rimsky-Korsakoff had retired, but in the spring of 1894 his musical muse returned, and he began working on Christmas Eve, the first of a series of operas which would monopolize his creative interest until his death. This first manifestation was successfully premiered in 1895. With Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Borodin all dead, Rimsky-Korsakoff was unchallenged as the leading living Russian composer, and used his position both to promote his own operas and to forward the career of those composers in whose talents he firmly believed, such as Glazunov. Buoyed by the relative ease of his composition of Christmas Eve, Rimsky-Korsakoff next plunged into the legend of Sadko, completing an opera on it in 1896. It is in many ways his most accomplished opera and was very popular during his lifetime. After this, there was seldom a period when he was not devising, or working upon, his next opera, with The Tsar's Bride and Mozart and Salieri both completed before the end of the decade. With the opening of the new century The Tale of Tsar Sultan was produced privately in St. Petersburg.
In the next decade operas such as Pan Voyevoda (1903), Kastchei. The Immortal (1902), the dramatic prologue Vera Sheloga (starring the great bass Chaliapin), the mystical and extraordinary opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905), and The Golden Cockerel all appeared. During these years Rimsky-Korsakoff kept a high public profile, culminating in open discord with the St. Petersburg Conservatory when students in 1905 rebelled against what they saw as an oppressive and conservative musical autocracy. The forthright Rimsky-Korsakoff could not help but publicly agree with the students. As a result, his own works were banned from performance in St. Petersburg and the school's classes were suspended indefinitely; instead Rimsky-Korsakoff's students studied with him at his house. He was to remain at the hub of St. Petersburg and Moscow musical affairs until his death three years later from a progressive throat and lung disease.