Still, he later admitted, he was a 16-year-old child who passionately loved music and played with it as though it were a game or toy. Ulikh saw, however, that Rimsky-Korsakov had serious musical talent and recommended another teacher—Feodor A. Kanille (Théodore Canillé). Beginning in the fall of 1859 Rimsky-Korsakov took lessons in piano and composition from Kanille. Kanille exposed him to much new music, including Mikhail Glinka and Robert Schumann's compositions When his brother, who was also in the navy and looked after his welfare, decided to cancel the lessons in September 1860, Kanille told him to continue coming every Sunday, not for formal lessons but to play duets and discuss music. Then, in November 1861, Kanille introduced him to Mily Balakirev.
Balakirev encouraged him to compose and taught him when he was not at sea. He also prompted Rimsky-Korsakov to enrich himself in other areas. "I heard from him, for the first time in my life, that one must read, must look after one's own education, must become acquainted with history, polite literature, and criticism. Many thanks to him for it! Through Balakirev he also met the other composers that would form "The Mighty Handful" (better known in English-speaking countries as "The Five"). He listened to their opinions and accepted them without question. With their encouragement, he began considering a career in music.
In 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a three-year world cruise. He completed three movements of his First Symphony in the months before the cruise. He wrote the slow movement during a stop in England, then mailed the score to Balakirev before going back to sea. Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1865, Balakirev suggested Rimsky-Korsakov renew work on the symphony. He did, writing a trio for the Scherzo and reorchestrating the whole work. Balakirev conducted the successful premiere of the symphony in December, 1865. Rimsky-Korsakov appeared on stage in uniform to acknowledge the applause (regulations demanded that officers remain in uniform even when off-duty). Seeing him, the audience was surprised a naval officer had written such a work.
In 1868 Rimsky-Korsakov also met Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Because Tchaikovsky had been trained at the Western-oriented St. Petersburg Conservatory instead of by Balakirev, he "was viewed rather negligently if not haughtily by our circle." At Balakirev's request Tchaikovsky played the opening movement of his First Symphony. "[I]t proved quite to our liking ... although Tchaikovsky's Conservatory training still constituted a considerable barrier between him and us." Rimsky-Korsakov would be even more impressed with the finale of Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, the Little Russian, at a January 7, 1873 gathering at his home. In this work Tchaikovsky would come closest, in its original version, to composing along the same principles as "The Five. Nevertheless, as Tchaikovsky's brother Modest observed, relations between Tchaikovsky and The Five, including Rimsky-Korsakov, resembled "those between two friendly neighboring states ... cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests."
In the fall of 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov moved into his brother's former apartment, inviting Mussorgsky as a roommate. The working arrangement they agreed upon was that Mussorgsky used the piano in the mornings while Rimsky-Korsakov either copied or orchestrated something out. Mussorgsky left for his civil service job at noon. This left afternoons for Rimsky-Korsakov to use the piano. Time in the evenings was allotted by mutual agreement. "That autumn and winter the two of us accomplished a good deal," Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, "with constant exchange of ideas and plans. Mussorgsky composed and orchestrated the Polish act of Boris Godunov and the folk-scene 'Near Kromy.' I orchestrated and finished my Maid of Pskov.
The Maid of Pskov proved difficult initially to have approved for performance by the Russian censors, and Rimsky-Korsakov had to actively lobby them on behalf of his opera. The biggest problem lay in one of the characters in his opera being Ivan the Terrible. An 1837 law prohibited depiction of the tsar in an opera. This rule differed slightly for plays. In spoken drama, it was only rulers of the Romanov dynasty who were proscribed When Rimsky-Korsakov questioned this discrepancy, he was told, "And suppose the Tsar should suddenly sing a ditty; well, it would be unseemly.
Rimsky-Korsakov circumnavigated the edict by appealing to a family friend, Navy Secretary N.K. Krabbe. Krabbe in turn discussed the matter with the tsar's brother, Grand Duke Konstantin Nicholaevich. As a result of this diplomacy, the censors allowed The Maid of Pskov to be staged—after some amendments. This episode eased the way for Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov to be produced, though Mussorgsky also had to make changes to mollify the censors.
In his first years of teaching, he bluffed his way through classes, aided, he wrote, "by the fact that at first none of my pupils could imagine that I knew nothing; and by the time they had learned enough to begin to see through me, I had learned something myself!" He was helped in this by his experience in the practical aspects of composition—his personal taste, sense of form and understanding of orchestral coloring. Having been, he felt, undeservedly hired as a professor at the conservatory, he soon became one of its best pupils—"possibly its very best pupil," he wrote, "judging by the quantity and value of the information it gave me!" Meanwhile, with Tchaikovsky's encouragement, he assiduously studied harmony and counterpoint at home. Within a few years, he became an excellent teacher and a fervent believer in academic training.
Nadezhda was to become a musical as well as domestic partner with her husband, much as Clara Schumann had been on her husband Robert. Beautiful, capable, strong-willed and far better trained musically than her husband at the time they married, she proved a good critic of his work. She also arranged the second version of Antar for piano four-hands in 1875. This arrangement was published by Bessel. (She had arranged the original version of Antar for piano four-hands in 1869-70, before she married Rimsky-Korsakov.)
The post came with a promotion to Collegiate Assessor. This would be a civilian rank. Rimsky-Korsakov would still be on the navy payroll and listed on the roster of the Chancellery of the Navy Department. Otherwise, he would no longer be considered under military service. "Henceforth I was a musician officially and incontestably," he wrote. "I was in ecstasy; so were my friends. Congratulations were showered on me.
His appointment encouraged him to fulfill a long-standing desire to familiarize himself with the construction and playing technique of orchestral instruments. He delved into the subject headlong, purchasing and learning to play a number of instruments. These studies in turn prompted him to write a textbook on orchestration. He spent two years making notes, even studying texts by Tyndall and Helmholtz on the laws of acoustics. While his realization of both the enormous scale of the task and the quickness with which his text could become outdated led him to give up work on it, he considered the knowledge amassed worthwhile. He applied it to his compositions and strove to give his conservatory students "a clear conception, if not a full knowledge, of instruments of the orchestra.
He used the privileges of rank to freely exercise and expand upon his knowledge. He orchestrated for military bands and arranged a number of works by other composers. He also asked band leaders to arrange pieces he selected. He then organized and led a concert of combined navy bands at Kronstadt in October 1874. The concert's success convinced the navy to let Rimsky-Korsakov plan and direct two or three such concerts each year during his tenure as inspector. For these concerts he wrote a set of variations on a theme of Glinka for oboe, a concerto for trombone and a Konzertstück for clarinet, all with the accompaniment of wind band.
In March 1884, an Imperial Order abolished the navy office of Inspector of Bands, and Rimsky-Korsakov was relieved of his duties. "Accordingly," he wrote, "my government service was confined exclusively the Chapel—that is, the court Department. He worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as a deputy. This post gave him the chance to study Russian Orthodox church music. He wrote his textbook on harmony for the classes he taught there after finding Tchaikovsky's book on the subject unsatisfactory.. He worked at the chapel until 1894.
His studies and change in attitude on music education brought Rimsky-Korsakov the scorn of his fellow nationalists. They felt he was throwing away his Russian heritage to compose fugues and sonatas. Alexander Borodin called it "apostasy," adding, "Many are grieved at present by the fact that Korsakov has turned back, has thrown himself into a study of musical antiquity. I do not bemoan it. It is understandable.... Mussorgsky was harsher: "[T]he mighty Koocha had degenerated into soulless traitors.
Tchaikovsky fully applauded what Rimsky-Korsakov was doing, writing that he admired his artistic modesty and strength of character. He also saw the danger Rimsky-Korsakov risked of letting too much academia choke off his natural gift for musical fantasy. He wrote his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, "Either a great master will come out of him, or he will finally become bogged down in contrapuntal tricks."
For a while, though, bogged down was what Rimsky-Korsakov remained. After striving "to crowd in as much counterpoint as possible" into his Third Symphony, he applied his newly-acquired knowledge to chamber works in which he adhered strictly to classical models. These included a string sextet, a string quartet in F minor and a quintet for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano. The reaction of his fellow nationalists did not help. They showed little enthusiasm for the Third Symphony, less still for the quartet. He wrote, "[T]hey began, indeed, to look down upon me as one on the downward path." Worse still was Anton Rubinstein, the nationalists' arch-nemesis, commenting after hearing the quartet that now Rimsky-Korsakov "might amount to something" as a composer.
The second project came at the behest of Lyudmila Shestakova, the brother of composer Mikhail Glinka. Having bought back the publishing rights to the complete orchestral scores of her brother's works, she had decided to publish her own edition of them, at her expense. Rimsky-Korsakov agreed to work with Balakirev and Anatoly Lyadov in editing them, which took 18 months and was finished around January 1878.
Both these tasks had a therapeutic effect on Rimsky-Korsakov. In the summer of 1877 he thought increasingly on the short story "May Night" by Nikolai Gogol. The story had long been a favorite of his, and his wife had encouraged him to write an opera based on it from the day of their betrothal, when they had read it together. While some musical ideas for such a work had come earlier, now they came with ever greater persistence. By winter May Night began taking more of his attention; in February he started writing in earnest. By early November, the opera was finished.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that, among other reasons, May Night was of great importance because, despite his extensive use of counterpoint in the work, he "cast off the shackles of counterpoint" (italics Rimsky-Korsakov). He wrote it in a folk-like melodic idiom, with singing melody and phrase replacing inexpressive recitative, and scored with a transparent operatic orchestration much like the style of Glinka.
Nevertheless, even with this breakthrough, and despite his next opera, The Snow Maiden, coming with an ease and rapidity he had not known before, Rimsky-Korsakov became paralyzed creatively several times during this period, with his progress as a composer coming to a standstill from 1881 to 1888. He kept busy by editing Mussorgsky's works and completing Borodin's Prince Igor.
Both the rehearsal the previous year and this concert gave Rimsky-Korsakov the idea of offering several concerts per year featuring Russian compositions. The number of orchestral compositions was growing, and there were always difficulties in having the Russian Musical Society and other organizations program them. Rimsky-Korsakov mentioned the idea to Belayev. Belayev liked it, inaugurating the Russian Symphony Concerts during the 1886-1887 season. Rimsky-Korsakov shared conducting duties for these concerts.
He finished his revision of Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and conducted it at the opening concert. In addition, the Russian Symphony Concerts coaxed him out of his creative drought. He wrote Scheherazade, Capriccio espagnol and the Russian Easter Overture specifically for them. He noted that these three works "show a considerable falling off in the use of contrapuntal devices ... [replaced] by a strong and virtuoso development of every kind of figuration which sustains the technical interest of my compositions.
Another death, ironically, brought about a creative renewal. The passing of Tchaikovsky in late 1893 presented a two-fold opportunity—to write for the Imperial Theaters and to compose an opera based on Nikolai Gogol's short story "Christmas Eve", a work on which Tchaikovsky had based his opera Vakula the Smith. Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve was a success and restored his creativity. He completed an opera approximately every 18 months—a total of 11 between 1893 and 1908. He also started and abandoned another draft of his treatise on orchestration. He made a third attempt in the last four years of his life. He nearly finished it before his death (his son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg completed it posthumously in 1912.), illustrating his text with more than 300 examples from his work. Rimsky-Korsakov's scientific treatment on orchestration set a new standard for texts of its kind.
In 1905 approximately 100 conservatory students were expelled for taking part in the February Revolution. Rimsky-Korsakov sided with the students and was removed from his professorship. A student production of his opera Kaschei the Immortal was followed not with the scheduled concert but with a political demonstration. A police ban on Rimsky-Korsakov's work followed.An immediate wave of outrage to the ban arose throughout Russia and abroad; liberals and intellectuals deluged the composer's residence with letters of sympathy. Several faculty members resigned in protest, including Glazunov and Lyadov. Eventually, over 300 additional students walked out of the conservatory in solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov. By December he had been reinstated, but the political controversy continued with his 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 the composer's death. Even then, it was performed in an adapted version.
Beginning around 1890, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from angina. While this ailment initially wore him down gradually, the stresses concurrent with the February Revolution and its aftermath greatly accelerated its progress. Especially after December 1907, his illness became severe, preventing all work. He died in Lyubensk in 1908, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.
Rimsky-Korssakov continued to be interested in harmonic experiments and the exploration of new idioms, but this interest was coupled with a abhorrence of excess. Taking Glinka and Liszt as models, he progressed considerably in his use of whole tone and octatonic scales, developing them both in the "fantastic" sections of his operas. However, he kept his tendency to experiment under constant control. The more radical his harmonies became, the more he attempted to control them with strict rules—applying his "musical conscience," as he called it. In this sense, he was both a progressive and a conservative composer.
Like his compatriot Cui, he expended his greatest efforts on his 15 operas. Subjects range from historical melodramas (The Tsar's Bride) to folk operas (May Night) to fairytales and legends (Snowmaiden, Kashchey the Immortal and The Tale of Tsar Saltan). In juxtaposed depictions of real and fantastic, the operas invoke folk melodies, realistic declamation, lyrical melodies, and artificially-constructed harmonies with effective orchestral expression. Most of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas remain in the standard repertoire in Russia to this day. While the operas themselves are not well-known in the West, many selections are familiar to Western audiences. These excerpts include "The Dance of the Tumblers" from Snowmaiden, "Procession of the Nobles" from Mlada, "Song of the Indian Guest" (or, less accurately, "Song of India,") from Sadko, and "Flight of the Bumblebee" from Tsar Saltan, as well as suites from The Golden Cockerel and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya.
Rimsky-Korsakov's status in the West has long been based on his orchestral compositions. Best known among these are Capriccio espagnol, Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade. Scheherazade is often cited as a textbook example of Russian orientalism. Likewise, while Capriccio espagnol could be considered a continuation of Glinka's Spanish Fantasies pittoresques, the vibrancy of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration far outshines Glinka's effort. It also served as a model for Maurice Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole.
Smaller-scaled works include dozens of art songs, arrangements of folk songs, some chamber and piano music, and a considerable number of choral works, both secular and for Russian Orthodox Church service, including settings of portions of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (the latter despite his staunch atheism
Stravinsky, who studied privately with Rimsky-Korsakov before entering the conservatory, remembered that Rimsky-Korsakov would give him some pages of the piano score to an opera he had just completed. He was to orchestrate it. When he was finished, Rimsky-Korsakov would show him his own instrumentation of the same passage. As they compared each other's work, Rimsky-Korsakov would ask why he had orchestrated some passaged differently. Whenever he could not do so, Rimsky-Korsakov would explain it for him.
Rimsky-Korsakov felt talented students needed little. Show them everything needed in harmony and counterpoint, direct them in understanding the forms of composition. Give them a year or two of systematic study in the development of technique, a few exercises in free composition and orchestration, and a good knowledge of the piano. Provided these steps were all done properly, studies would then be over.
He carried this attitude into his conservatory classes. Conductor Nikolai Malko remembered that Rimsky-Korsakov began the first class of the term by saying, "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." Malko added that his class followed exactly this pattern. "Rimsky-Korsakov explained everything so clearly and simply that all we had to do was to do our work well."
Rimsky-Korsakov would sit at the piano in class, looking through all the exercises in counterpoint his students had brought. He played endless preludes, fugues, canons and arrangements. However, he refused to review a student's work if it was written in pencil. "I do not wish to go blind because of you," he would declare. (Dmitri Shostakovich would also insist that his composition students write their scores in ink.)
Because of Rimsky-Korsakov's fame, his classes were large. This irritated the 15-year-old Prokofiev, who wanted the master's undivided attention and had trouble breaking through the crowd. Nevertheless, he admitted that those students who knew how much they could learn from Rimsky-Korsakov got the benefit despite the crowding.
While this effort is laudable, it is also not without controversy, especially in the case of works by Modest Mussorgsky. After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov revised and completed several of Mussorgsky's works for publication and performance. In some cases these versions helped to spread Mussorgsky's works throughout Russian and to the West. However, in going over the scores of his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov allowed his "musical conscience" of avoiding what he considered musical over-experimentation or bad form to dictate his editing, just as he allowed it to control his own composing. Because of this tendency, he has been accused of pedantry in "correcting" matters of harmony, etc., in the process. Rimsky-Korsakov may have foreseen this might happen over time when he wrote this statement:
If Moussorgsky's compositions are destined to live unfaded for fifty years after their author's death (when all his works will become the property of any and every publisher), such an archeologically accurate edition will always be possible, as the manuscripts went to the Public Library on leaving me. For the present, though, there was need of an edition for performances, for practical artistic purposes, for making his colossal talent known, and not for the mere studying of his personality and artistic sins.
Time seems to have proven Rimsky-Korsakov correct. Mussorgsky's musical style, once considered unpolished, is now valued for its originality. While Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain is still the version generally performed today, some of Rimsky-Korsakov's other revisions, such as that of Boris Godunov, have been replaced by Mussorgsky's original versions.
Rimsky-Korsakov's interest in pantheism was whetted by the folkloristic studies of Alexander Afanasyev. That author's standard work, The Poetic Outlook on Nature by the Slavs, became Rimsky-Korsakov's pantheistic bible. The composer first applied Afanasyev's ideas in May Night, in which he helped fill out Gogol's story by using folk dances and calendar songs. He went further down this path in The Snow Maiden. There he makes extensive use of seasonal calendar songs and khorovodi (ceremonial dances) in the folk tradition.
Rimsky-Korsakov also discovered pagan exuberance in Russian Orthdoxy, which served as the basis for his Russian Easter Festival Overture. Christian and pagan practices are often bound up inseparably in Russian folklore. This syncrecity is called dvoyeveriye—literally "double faith." When Russia was converted to Christianity, the Slavic rites did not disappear. Instead, they were incorporated into the new Christian rituals. Rimsky-Korsakov composed two operas on the dvoyeveriye theme: Christmas Eve emphasized the pagan aspect of dvoyeveriye, while The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya focused on the Christian aspect. Even with this emphasis in Kitezh, Rimsky-Korsakov combined elements of Russian history (the 13th-century invasion by the Mongols) and a strong dose of pantheism to lend the work a strongly nationalistic twist.
Dvoyeveriye might be an apt term for Rimsky-Korsakov himself, whose personality seems to have harbored a dual nature when it came to religion. Personally, he was an atheist, which for upper-class Russians of that time was not unusual, but his coolness and objectivity on the subject were considered extreme. Nonetheless, he could not only write music on religious themes without qualms, but he could also revel in it. As musicologist Gerald Abraham noted, "[H]e not only delighted in depicting religious ceremonies but was capable of total surrender to the nature-mysticism which possessed him during the composition of Snow Maiden." As with his other faults, weaknesses and limitations, Rimsky-Korsakov recognized this contradiction in himself very clearly.
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