Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).

  • Profession: Composer.
  • Residences: St Petersburg.
  • Relation to Mahler:
  • Correspondence with Mahler:
  • Born: 18-03-1844 Tikhvin near St Petersburg, Russia.
  • Died: 21-06-1908 Luga, Russia.
  • Buried: He was interred in Tikhvin cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg, next to Borodin, Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881).

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer, and a member of the group of composers known as The Five. He was a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions – Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade – are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of fairy tale and folk subjects.

Rimsky-Korsakov believed, as did fellow composer Mily Balakirev and critic Vladimir Stasov, in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian folk song and lore along with exotic harmonic, melodic and rhythmic elements in a practice known as musical orientalism, and eschewed traditional Western compositional methods. However, Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques after he became a professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five. His techniques of composition and orchestration were further enriched by his exposure to the works of Richard Wagner.

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea might have influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this knowledge to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.

Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire (although there is controversy over his editing of the works of Modest Mussorgsky), and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as an educator. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore considered “the main architect” of what the classical music public considers the Russian style of composition. His influence on younger composers was especially important, as he served as a transitional figure between the autodidactism which exemplified Glinka and The Five and professionally trained composers which would become the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s style was based on those of Glinka, Balakirev, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt, he “transmitted this style directly to two generations of Russian composers” and influenced non-Russian composers including Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas and Ottorino Respighi.

Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, 200 kilometres (120 mi) east of St Petersburg, into an aristocratic family with a long line of military and naval service—his older brother Voin, 22 years his senior, became a well-known navigator and explorer. He later recalled that his mother played the piano a little, and his father could play a few songs on the piano by ear. Beginning at six, he took piano lessons from local teachers and showed a talent for aural skills, but he showed a lack of interest, playing, as he later wrote, “badly, carelessly, … poor at keeping time.” Although he started composing by age 10, Rimsky-Korsakov preferred literature over music. He later wrote that from his reading, and tales of his brother’s exploits, he developed a poetic love for the sea “without ever having seen it.” This love, and prompting from Voin, encouraged the 12-year-old to join the Imperial Russian Navy. He studied at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St Petersburg and, at 18, took his final examination in April 1862

While at school, Rimsky-Korsakov took piano lessons from a man named Ulikh. These lessons were sanctioned by Voin, who now served as director of the school, because he hoped they would help the youth to develop social skills and overcome his shyness. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that, while “indifferent” to lessons, he developed a love for music, fostered by visits to the opera and, later, orchestral concerts. Ulikh perceived that he had serious musical talent and recommended another teacher, Feodor A. Kanille (Théodore Canillé). Beginning in the autumn of 1859, Rimsky-Korsakov took lessons in piano and composition from Kanille, whom he later credited as the inspiration for devoting his life to musical composition. Through Kanille, he was exposed to a great deal of new music, including Mikhail Glinka and Robert Schumann.

Despite Rimsky-Korsakov’s now liking his music lessons, Voin cancelled them when Rimsky-Korsakov was 17, as he felt they no longer served a practical need. Kanille told Rimsky-Korsakov to continue coming to him every Sunday, not for formal lessons but to play duets and discuss music. In November 1861, Kanille introduced the 18-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov to Mily Balakirev. Balakirev in turn introduced him to César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky; all three were known as composers, despite only being in their 20s. Rimsky-Korsakov later wrote, “With what delight I listened to real business discussions (Rimsky-Korsakov’s emphasis) of orchestration, part writing, etc! And besides, how much talking there was about current musical matters! All at once I had been plunged into a new world, unknown to me, formerly only heard of in the society of my dilettante friends. That was truly a strong impression.”

Balakirev encouraged Rimsky-Korsakov to compose and taught him the rudiments when he was not at sea. Balakirev also prompted him to enrich himself in history, literature and criticism. When he showed Balakirev the beginning of a symphony in E-flat minor that he had written, Balakirev insisted he continue working on it despite his lack of formal musical training. By the time Rimsky-Korsakov sailed on a two-year-and-eight-month cruise aboard the clipper Almaz in late 1862, he had completed and orchestrated three movements of the symphony. He composed the slow movement during a stop in England and mailed the score to Balakirev before going back to sea. At first, his work on the symphony kept Rimsky-Korsakov occupied during his cruise. He purchased scores at every port of call, along with a piano on which to play them, and filled his idle hours studying Berlioz’s Treatise on orchestration. He found time to read the works of Homer, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he saw London, Niagara Falls, and Rio de Janeiro during his stops in port. Eventually, the lack of outside musical stimuli dulled the young midshipman’s hunger to learn. He wrote to Balakirev that after two years at sea he had neglected his musical lessons for months. “Thoughts of becoming a musician and composer gradually left me altogether,” he later recalled; “distant lands began to allure me, somehow, although, properly speaking, naval service never pleased me much and hardly suited my character at all.”

Mentored by Balakirev; time with The Five

Once back in St Petersburg in May 1865, Rimsky-Korsakov’s onshore duties consisted of a couple of hours of clerical duty each day, but he recalled that his desire to compose “had been stifled … I did not concern myself with music at all.”He wrote that contact with Balakirev in September 1865 encouraged him “to get accustomed to music and later to plunge into it”. At Balakirev’s suggestion, he wrote a trio to the scherzo of the E-flat minor symphony, which it had lacked up to that point, and reorchestrated the entire symphony. Its first performance came in December of that year under Balakirev’s direction in St Petersburg. A second performance followed in March 1866 under the direction of Konstantin Lyadov (father of composer Anatoly Lyadov)

Correspondence between Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev clearly shows that some ideas for the symphony originated with Balakirev. Balakirev seldom stopped at merely correcting a piece of music, and would often recompose it at the piano. Rimsky-Korsakov recalled,

A pupil like myself had to submit to Balakirev a proposed composition in its embryo, say, even the first four or eight bars. Balakirev would immediately make corrections, indicating how to recast such an embryo; he would criticize it, would praise and extol the first two bars, but would censure the next two, ridicule them, and try hard to make the author disgusted with them. Vivacity of composition and fertility were not at all in favor, frequent recasting was demanded, and the composition was extended over a long space of time under the cold control of self-criticism

Rimsky-Korsakov recalled that “Balakirev had no difficulty in getting along with me. 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”. Though Rimsky-Korsakov later found Balakirev’s influence stifling, and broke free from it, this did not stop him in his memoirs from extolling the older composer’s talents as a critic and improviser. Under Balakirev’s mentoring, Rimsky-Korsakov turned to other compositions. He began a symphony in B minor, but felt it too closely followed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and abandoned it. He completed an Overture on Three Russian Themes, based on Balakirev’s folksong overtures, as well as a Fantasia on Serbian Themes that was performed at a concert given for the delegates of the Slavonic Congress in 1867. In his review of this concert, nationalist critic Vladimir Stasov coined the phrase Moguchaya kuchka for the Balakirev circle (Moguchaya kuchka is usually translated as “The Mighty Handful” or “The Five”). Rimsky-Korsakov also composed the initial versions of Sadko and Antar, which cemented his reputation as a writer of orchestral works.

Rimsky-Korsakov socialized and discussed music with the other members of The Five; they critiqued one another’s works in progress and collaborated on new pieces. He became friends with Alexander Borodin, whose music “astonished” him. He spent an increasing amount of time with Mussorgsky. Balakirev and Mussorgsky played piano four-hand music, Mussorgsky would sing, and they frequently discussed other composers’ works, with preferred tastes running “toward Glinka, Schumann and Beethoven’s late quartets”. Mendelssohn was not thought of highly, Mozart and Haydn “were considered out of date and naïve”, and J.S. Bach merely mathematical and unfeeling. Berlioz “was highly esteemed”, Liszt “crippled and perverted from a musical point of view … even a caricature”, and Wagner discussed little. Rimsky-Korsakov “listened to these opinions with avidity and absorbed the tastes of Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky without reasoning or examination”. Often, the musical works in question “were played before me only in fragments, and I had no idea of the whole work”. This, he wrote, did not stop him from accepting these judgments at face value and repeating them “as if I were thoroughly convinced of their truth”.

Rimsky-Korsakov became especially appreciated within The Five, and among those who visited the circle, for his talents as an orchestrator. He was asked by Balakirev to orchestrate a Schubert march for a concert in May 1868, by Cui to orchestrate the opening chorus of his opera William Ratcliff and by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, whose works were greatly appreciated by The Five and who was close to death, to orchestrate his opera The Stone Guest

In the fall of 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov moved into Voin’s former apartment, and invited Mussorgsky to be his roommate. The working arrangement they agreed upon was that Mussorgsky used the piano in the mornings while Rimsky-Korsakov worked on copying or orchestration. When Mussorgsky left for his civil service job at noon, Rimsky-Korsakov then used 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.”

In 1871, the 27-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov became Professor of Practical Composition and orchestration (orchestration) at the St Petersburg Conservatory, as well as leader of the Orchestra Class. He retained his position in active naval service, and taught his classes in uniform (military officers in Russia were required to wear their uniforms every day, as they were considered to be always on duty).

Rimsky-Korsakov explained in his memoirs that Mikhaíl Azanchevsky had taken over that year as director of the Conservatory, and wanting new blood to freshen up teaching in those subjects, had offered to pay generously for Rimsky-Korsakov’s services. Biographer Mikhail Zetlin suggests that Azanchevsky’s motives might have been twofold. First, Rimsky-Korsakov was the member of the Five least criticized by its opponents, and inviting him to teach at the Conservatory may have been considered a safe way to show that all serious musicians were welcome there. Second, the offer may have been calculated to expose him to an academic climate in which he would write in a more conservative, Western-based style. Balakirev had opposed academic training in music with tremendous vigor, but encouraged him to accept the post to convince others to join the nationalist musical cause.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation at this time was as a master of orchestration, based on Sadko and Antar. However, he had written these works mainly by intuition. His knowledge of musical theory was elemental; he had never written any counterpoint, could not harmonize a simple chorale, nor knew the names or intervals of musical chords. He had never conducted an orchestra, and had been discouraged from doing so by the navy, which did not approve of his appearing on the podium in uniform. Aware of his technical shortcomings, Rimsky-Korsakov consulted Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with whom he and the others in The Five had been in occasional contact. Tchaikovsky, unlike The Five, had received academic training in composition at the St Petersburg Conservatory, and was serving as Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky advised him to study.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that while teaching at the Conservatory he soon became “possibly its very best pupil (Rimsky-Korsakov’s emphasis), judging by the quantity and value of the information it gave me!” To prepare himself, and to stay at least one step ahead of his students, he took a three-year sabbatical from composing original works, and assiduously studied at home while he lectured at the Conservatory. He taught himself from textbooks, and followed a strict regimen of composing contrapuntal exercises, fugues, chorales and a cappella choruses.

Rimsky-Korsakov eventually became an excellent teacher and a fervent believer in academic training. He revised everything he had composed prior to 1874, even acclaimed works such as Sadko and Antar, in a search for perfection that would remain with him throughout the rest of his life. Assigned to rehearse the Orchestra Class, he mastered the art of conducting. Dealing with orchestral textures as a conductor, and making suitable arrangements of musical works for the Orchestra Class, led to an increased interest in the art of orchestration, an area into which he would further indulge his studies as Inspector of Navy Bands. The score of his Third Symphony, written just after he had completed his three-year program of self-improvement, reflects his hands-on experience with the orchestra.

Professorship brought Rimsky-Korsakov financial security, which encouraged him to settle down and to start a family. In December 1871 he proposed to Nadezhda Purgold, with whom he had developed a close relationship over weekly gatherings of The Five at the Purgold household. They married in July 1872, with Mussorgsky serving as best man. The Rimsky-Korsakovs had seven children. One of their sons, Andrei, became a musicologist, married the composer Yuliya Veysberg and wrote a multi-volume study of his father’s life and work.

Nadezhda became a musical as well as domestic partner with her husband, much as Clara Schumann had been with her own husband Robert. She was beautiful, capable, strong-willed, and far better trained musically than her husband at the time they married—she had attended the St Petersburg Conservatory in the mid-1860s, studying piano with Anton Gerke (one of whose private students was Mussorgsky) and music theory with Nikolai Zaremba, who also taught Tchaikovsky.  Nadezhda proved a fine and most demanding critic of her husband’s work; her influence over him in musical matters was strong enough for Balakirev and Stasov to wonder whether she was leading him astray from their musical preferences. Musicologist Lyle Neff wrote that while Nadezhda gave up her own compositional career when she married Rimsky-Korsakov, she “had a considerable influence on the creation of (Rimsky-Korsakov’s) first three operas. She travelled with her husband, attended rehearsals and arranged compositions by him and others” for piano four hands, which she played with her husband. “Her last years were dedicated to issuing her husband’s posthumous literary and musical legacy, maintaining standards for performance of his works … and preparing material for a museum in his name.”

In the spring of 1873, the navy created the civilian post of Inspector of Naval Bands, with a rank of Collegiate Assessor, and appointed Rimsky-Korsakov. This kept him on the navy payroll and listed on the roster of the Chancellery of the Navy Department but allowed him to resign his commission. The composer commented, “I parted with delight with both my military status and my officer’s uniform”, he later wrote. “Henceforth I was a musician officially and incontestably.” As Inspector, Rimsky-Korsakov applied himself with zeal to his duties. He visited naval bands throughout Russia, supervised the bandmasters and their appointments, reviewed the bands’ repertoire, and inspected the quality of their instruments. He wrote a study program for a complement of music students who held navy fellowships at the Conservatory, and acted as an intermediary between the Conservatory and the navy.  He also indulged in a long-standing desire to familiarize himself with the construction and playing technique of orchestral instruments. These studies prompted him to write a textbook on orchestration. He used the privileges of rank to exercise and expand upon his knowledge. He discussed arrangements of musical works for military band with bandmasters, encouraged and reviewed their efforts, held concerts at which he could hear these pieces, and orchestrated original works, and works by other composers, for military bands.

In March 1884, an Imperial Order abolished the navy office of Inspector of Bands, and Rimsky-Korsakov was relieved of his duties. He worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as a deputy until 1894, which allowed him to study Russian Orthodox church music. He also taught classes at the Chapel, and wrote his textbook on harmony for use there and at the Conservatory.

Backlash and May Night

Rimsky-Korsakov’s studies and his change in attitude regarding music education brought him the scorn of his fellow nationalists, who thought he was throwing away his Russian heritage to compose fugues and sonatas. After he strove “to crowd in as much counterpoint as possible” into his Third Symphony, he wrote chamber works adhering strictly to classical models, including a string sextet, a string quartet in F minor and a quintet for flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon and piano. About the quartet and the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, that they “were filled with a host of clever things but … (were) imbued with a dryly pedantic character”. Borodin commented that when he heard the symphony, he kept “feeling that this is the work of a German Herr Professor who has put on his glasses and is about to write Eine grosse Symphonie in C”.

According to Rimsky-Korsakov, the other members of The Five showed little enthusiasm for the symphony, and less still for the quartet. Nor was his public debut as a conductor, at an 1874 charity concert where he led the orchestra in the new symphony, considered favorably by his compatriots. He later wrote that “they began, indeed, to look down upon me as one on the downward path”. Worse still to Rimsky-Korsakov was the faint praise given by Anton Rubinstein, a composer opposed to the nationalists’ music and philosophy. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that after Rubinstein heard the quartet, he commented that now Rimsky-Korsakov “might amount to something” as a composer. He wrote that Tchaikovsky continued to support him morally, telling him that he fully applauded what Rimsky-Korsakov was doing and admired both his artistic modesty and his strength of character. Privately, Tchaikovsky confided to Nadezhda von Meck, “Apparently (Rimsky-Korsakov) is now passing through this crisis, and how it will end will be difficult to predict. Either a great master will come out of him, or he will finally become bogged down in contrapuntal tricks”.

Two projects helped Rimsky-Korsakov focus on less academic music-making. The first was the creation of two folk song collections in 1874. Rimsky-Korsakov transcribed 40 Russian songs for voice and piano from performances by folk singer Tvorty Filippov, who approached him at Balakirev’s suggestion. This collection was followed by a second containing 100 songs, supplied by friends and servants, or taken from rare and out-of-print collections. Rimsky-Korsakov later credited this work as a great influence on him as a composer; it also supplied a vast amount of musical material from which he could draw for future projects, either by direct quotation or as models for composing fakeloric passages. The second project was the editing of orchestral scores by pioneer Russian composer Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857) in collaboration with Balakirev and Anatoly Lyadov. Glinka’s sister, Lyudmila Ivanovna Shestakova, wanted to preserve her brother’s musical legacy in print, and paid the costs of the project from her own pocket. No similar project had been attempted before in Russian music, and guidelines for scholarly musical editing had to be established and agreed. While Balakirev favored making changes in Glinka’s music to “correct” what he saw as compositional flaws, Rimsky-Korsakov favored a less intrusive approach. Eventually, Rimsky-Korsakov prevailed. “Work on Glinka’s scores was an unexpected schooling for me”, he later wrote. “Even before this I had known and worshipped his operas; but as editor of the scores in print I had to go through Glinka’s style and orchestration to their last little note … And this was a beneficent discipline for me, leading me as it did to the path of modern music, after my vicissitudes with counterpoint and strict style”.

In the summer of 1877, Rimsky-Korsakov thought increasingly about the short story May Night by Nikolai Gogol. The story had long been a favorite of his, and his wife Nadezhda had encouraged him to write an opera based on it from the day of their betrothal, when they had read it together. While musical ideas for such a work predated 1877, now they came with greater persistence. By winter May Night took an increasing amount of his attention; in February 1878 he started writing in earnest, and he finished the opera by early November.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that May Night was of great importance because, despite the opera’s containing a good deal of contrapuntal music, he nevertheless “cast off the shackles of counterpoint (emphasis Rimsky-Korsakov)”. He wrote the opera in a folk-like melodic idiom, and scored it in a transparent manner much in the style of Glinka. Nevertheless, despite the ease of writing this opera and the next, The Snow Maiden, from time to time he suffered from creative paralysis between 1881 and 1888. He kept busy during this time by editing Mussorgsky’s works and completing Borodin’s Prince Igor (Mussorgsky died in 1881, Borodin in 1887).

Belyayev circle

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he became acquainted with budding music patron Mitrofan Belyayev (M. P. Belaieff) in Moscow in 1882. Belyayev was one of a growing coterie of Russian nouveau-riche industrialists who became patrons of the arts in mid- to late-19th century Russia; their number included railway magnate Savva Mamontov and textile manufacturer Pavel Tretyakov. Belyayev, Mamontov and Tretyakov “wanted to contribute conspicuously to public life”. They had worked their way into wealth, and being Slavophiles in their national outlook believed in the greater glory of Russia. Because of this belief, they were more likely than the aristocracy to support native talent, and were more inclined to support nationalist artists over cosmopolitan ones. This preference paralleled a general upsurge in nationalism and Russophilia that became prevalent in mainstream Russian art and society

By the winter of 1883 Rimsky-Korsakov had become a regular visitor to the weekly “quartet Fridays” (“Les Vendredis”) held at Belyayev’s home in St Petersburg. Belyayev, who had already taken a keen interest in the musical future of the teenage Alexander Glazunov, rented a hall and hired an orchestra in 1884 to play Glazunov’s First Symphony plus an orchestral suite Glazunov had just composed. This concert and a rehearsal the previous year gave Rimsky-Korsakov the idea of offering concerts featuring Russian compositions, a prospect to which Belyayev was amenable. The Russian Symphony Concerts were inaugurated during the 1886–87 season, with Rimsky-Korsakov sharing conducting duties with Anatoly Lyadov. He finished his revision of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and conducted it at the opening concert. The concerts also 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.”

Rimsky-Korsakov was asked for advice and guidance not just on the Russian Symphony Concerts, but on other projects through which Belyayev aided Russian composers. “By force of matters purely musical I turned out to be the head of the Belyayev circle”, he wrote. “As the head Belyayev, too, considered me, consulting me about everything and referring everyone to me as chief”. In 1884 Belyayev set up an annual Glinka prize, and in 1885 he founded his own music publishing firm, through which he published works by Borodin, Glazunov, Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov at his own expense. To select which composers to assist with money, publication or performances from the many who now appealed for help, Belyayev set up an advisory council made up of Glazunov, Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. They would look through the compositions and appeals submitted and suggest which composers were deserving of patronage and public attention.

The group of composers who now congregated with Glazunov, Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov became known as the Belyayev circle, named after their financial benefactor. These composers were nationalistic in their musical outlook, as The Five before them had been. Like The Five, they believed in a uniquely Russian style of classical music that utilized folk music and exotic melodic, harmonic and rhythmic elements, as exemplified by the music of Balakirev, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Unlike The Five, these composers also believed in the necessity of an academic, Western-based background in composition—which Rimsky-Korsakov had instilled in his years at the St Petersburg Conservatory. Compared to the “revolutionary” composers in Balakirev’s circle, Rimsky-Korsakov found those in the Belyayev circle to be “progressive … attaching as it did great importance to technical perfection, but … also broke new paths, though more securely, even if less speedily …”

Increased contact with Tchaikovsky

In November 1887, Tchaikovsky arrived in St Petersburg in time to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts. One of them included the first complete performance of his First Symphony, subtitled Winter Daydreams, in its final version. Another concert featured the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Third Symphony in its revised version. Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky corresponded considerably before the visit and spent a lot of time together, along with Glazunov and Lyadov. Though Tchaikovsky had been a regular visitor to the Rimsky-Korsakov home since 1876, and had at one point offered to arrange Rimsky-Korsakov’s appointment as director of the Moscow Conservatory, this was the beginning of closer relations between the two. Within a couple of years, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, Tchaikovsky’s visits became more frequent

During these visits and especially in public, Rimsky-Korsakov wore a mask of geniality. Privately, he found the situation emotionally complex, and confessed his fears to his friend, the Moscow critic Semyon Kruglikov. Memories persisted of the tension between Tchaikovsky and The Five over the differences in their musical philosophies—tension acute enough for Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest to liken their relations at that time to “those between two friendly neighboring states … cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests”. Rimsky-Korsakov observed, not without annoyance, how Tchaikovsky became increasingly popular among Rimsky-Korsakov’s followers. This personal jealousy was compounded by a professional one, as Tchaikovsky’s music became increasingly popular among the composers of the Belyayev circle, and remained on the whole more famous than his own. Even so, when Tchaikovsky attended Rimsky-Korsakov’s nameday party in May 1893, Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky personally if he would conduct four concerts of the Russian Musical Society in St Petersburg the following season. After hesitation, Tchaikovsky agreed. While his sudden death in late 1893 prevented him from fulfilling this commitment in its entirety, the list of works he had planned to conduct included Rimsky-Korsakov’s Third Symphony.

Increasing conservatism; second creative drought

In March 1889, Angelo Neumann’s traveling “Richard Wagner Theater” visited St Petersburg, giving four cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen there under the direction of Karl Muck (1859-1940). The Five had ignored Wagner’s music, but The Ring impressed Rimsky-Korsakov: he was astonished with Wagner’s mastery of orchestration. He attended the rehearsals with Glazunov, and followed the score. After hearing these performances, Rimsky-Korsakov devoted himself almost exclusively to composing operas for the rest of his creative life. Wagner’s use of the orchestra influenced Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, beginning with the arrangement of the polonaise from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that he made for concert use in 1889.

Toward music more adventurous than Wagner’s, especially that of Richard Strauss and later Claude Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov’s mind remained closed. He would fume for days afterwards when he heard pianist Felix Blumenfeld play Debussy’s Estampes and write in his diary about them, “Poor and skimpy to the nth degree; there is no technique, even less imagination.” This was part of an increasing musical conservatism on his part (his “musical conscience,” as he put it), under which he now scrutinized his music and that of others’, as well. Compositions by his former compatriots in The Five were not immune. While working on his first revision of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, in 1895 he would tell his amanuensis, Vasily Yastrebtsev, “It’s incredible that I ever could have liked this music and yet it seems there was such a time.” By 1901 he would write of growing “indignant at all (of Wagner’s) blunders of the ear”—this about the same music which caught his attention in 1889.

In 1892 Rimsky-Korsakov suffered a second creative drought, brought on by bouts of depression and alarming physical symptoms. Rushes of blood to the head, confusion, memory loss and unpleasant obsessions led to a medical diagnosis of neurasthenia. Crises in the Rimsky-Korsakov household may have been a factor—the serious illnesses of his wife and one of his sons from diphtheria in 1890, the deaths of his mother and youngest child, as well as the onset of the prolonged, ultimately fatal illness of his second youngest child. He resigned from the Russian Symphony Concerts and the Court Chapel and considered giving up composition permanently. After making third versions of the musical tableau Sadko and the opera The Maid of Pskov, he closed his musical account with the past; he had left none of his major works before May Night in their original form.

Another death brought about a creative renewal. The passing of Tchaikovsky presented a twofold 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. The success of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve encouraged him to complete an opera approximately every 18 months between 1893 and 1908—a total of 11 during this period. He also started and abandoned another draft of his treatise on orchestration, but made a third attempt and almost finished it in the last four years of his life. (His son-in-law Maximilian Steinberg completed the book in 1912.) Rimsky-Korsakov’s scientific treatment of orchestration, illustrated with more than 300 examples from his work, set a new standard for texts of its kind.

1905 Revolution

In 1905, demonstrations took place in the St Petersburg Conservatory as part of the 1905 Revolution; these, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, were triggered by similar disturbances at St Petersburg State University, in which students demanded political reforms and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in Russia. “I was chosen a member of the committee for adjusting differences with agitated pupils”, he recalled; however, almost as soon as the committee had been formed, ” all sorts of measures were recommended to expel the ringleaders, to quarter the police in the Conservatory, to close the Conservatory entirely”.

A lifelong liberal politically, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he felt someone had to protect the rights of the students to demonstrate, especially as disputes and wrangling between students and authorities were becoming increasingly violent. In an open letter, he sided with the students against what he saw as unwarranted interference by Conservatory leadership and the Russian Musical Society. A second letter, this time signed by a number of faculty including Rimsky-Korsakov, demanded the resignation of the head of the Conservatory. Partly as a result of these two letters he wrote, approximately 100 Conservatory students were expelled and he was removed from his professorship. Just before the dismissal was enacted, Rimsky-Korsakov received a letter from one of the members of the school directorate, suggesting that he take up the directorship in the interest of calming student unrest. “Probably the member of the Directorate held a minority opinion, but signed the resolution nevertheless,” he wrote. “I sent a negative reply.” Partly in defiance of his dismissal, Rimsky-Korsakov continued teaching his students from his home.

Not long after Rimsky-Korsakov’s dismissal, a student production of his opera Kashchey the Deathless was followed not with the scheduled concert but with a political demonstration, which led to a police ban on Rimsky-Korsakov’s work. Due in part to widespread press coverage of these events, an immediate wave of outrage against the ban arose throughout Russia and abroad; liberals and intellectuals deluged the composer’s residence with letters of sympathy, and even peasants who had not heard a note of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music sent small monetary donations. Several faculty members of the St Petersburg Conservatory resigned in protest, including Glazunov and Lyadov. Eventually, over 300 students walked out of the Conservatory in solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov. By December he had been reinstated under a new director, Glazunov; Rimsky-Korsakov retired from the Conservatory in 1906. 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 Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, and even then it was performed in an adapted version.

In April 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a pair of concerts in Paris, hosted by impresario Sergei Diaghilev, which featured music of the Russian nationalist school. The concerts were hugely successful in popularizing Russian classical music of this kind in Europe, Rimsky-Korsakov’s in particular. The following year, his opera Sadko was produced at the Paris Opéra and The Snow Maiden at the Opéra-Comique. He also had the opportunity to hear more recent music by European composers. He hissed unabashedly when he heard Richard Strauss’s opera Salome, and told Diaghilev after hearing Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande, “Don’t make me listen to all these horrors or I shall end up liking them!” Hearing these works led him to appreciate his place in the world of classical music. He admitted that he was a “convinced kuchkist” (after kuchka, the shortened Russian term for The Five) and that his works belonged to an era that musical trends had left behind.


Beginning around 1890, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from angina. While this ailment initially wore him down gradually, the stresses concurrent with the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath greatly accelerated its progress. After December 1907, his illness became severe, and he could not work. In 1908 he died at his Lubensk estate near Luga (modern day Plyussky District of Pskov Oblast), and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg, next to Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Stasov.

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