Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
George R. Seaman wrote: "Rimsky-Korsakov was truly a man of many parts. Apart from his work as a prolific composer of sixteen operas, and a substantial body of compositions in many other genres, he was also active as a teacher, music inspector, conductor, editor, writer, as well as leading a full and busy life within the bosom of his family.''
Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born in a small provincial town of Tikhvin, near Novgorod, 200 km from St. Petersburg. His family was unusual by the age of its members. At the time of his birth his father was 60, his mother 42 and his brother was already a naval officer and was 22 years old. In Tikhvin little Nika learned to play the piano. His parents noticed that he made good progress and had a perfect ear. But they did not pay much attention to this. At his parents' will, Nika, when he was twelve, entered the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg to become a mariner following his brother.
From 1856 to 1862, he attended the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. From that time he began to go to operas, symphonic concerts and acquired a passion for music. His new music teacher Canille noticed the musical gift of his pupil and told him he should try to compose music himself. Canille explained the general rules of musical composition, set him homework and soon introduced to the composer Miliy Balakirev who was the head of a St. Petersburg musical circle. During the last year of his studies at the Naval Academy (1861-62) Nikolai began to compose a symphony. He was happy and dreamed to become a composer. He joined the group of young composers who later became known as "the Mighty Five". This group, led by Balakirev, urged Russian composers to stress their national heritage in their music.
But his mother and brother (his father died in March 1862) convinced Nikolai that a musical career would not ensure a sufficient income, and therefore he should become a naval officer. In order to do this, he had to embark on a round-the-world trip. In October, 1862 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set off from Kronstadt as a gardemarine on the clipper "Almaz".
He sailed on a three-year naval cruise, during which he visited Germany, England, The United States of America (where he went on a trip to the Niagara Falls), Brazil, France and Spain. He saw many different aspects of nature, particularly of the Northern, Equatorial and Southern seas, the stormy and calm ocean, the starry sky of the Southern hemisphere. All these natural pictures left striking impressions in his memory. Later he interpreted these impressions as well as the natural phenomenon of the North of Russia in his music with a great talent. He created beautiful musical pictures of the sea (e.g. in Sadko, The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, Scheherazade); of the forest with its sounds (e.g. in The Snow maiden, The Legend of the Invisible Town Kitezh); of the air and sky (e.g. in The Christmas Night, Koshchei the Deathless).
He completed his first symphony on board a ship. After returning to St. Petersburg in 1865, he revised the symphony under Balakirev's supervision. It had its first performance that same year in a concert with Mily Balakirev as the conductor, and it was a great success. The audience were astonished, when they saw that the author was a very young naval officer. So his musical career began. Still he had to earn a living and thus only gave up active naval service eight years later.
In 1867 Rimsky-Korsakov created a "musical scene" Sadko for the orchestra which won him recognition. The young composer was carried away by a fairy-tale about the strife of a gusli-player with the ocean. As soon as he started writing, the memories of his sea journey were revived – pictures of the raging sea and delicate ripples, luminous water, jet-black southern sky with large shiny stars. Sadko was the first work of Rimsky-Korsakov where he felt his own creative pulse. And he was captured by a desire to go further and overcome new difficulties.
These same years Nikolai found his true love. The works of the musical circle's members were performed by two charming girls – Alexandra and Nadezhda Pourgold. Rimsky-Korsakov admired Nadezhda's performance, and they also found they had much in common. They shared their thoughts, dreams, and plans for the future. In 1871 Nadezhda became Rimsky-Korsakov's fiancee.
For many a month now, Nikolai had been obsessed with the idea of writing an opera Pskovityanka ("A Pskov woman") to the play of P. May. The work was going on for four years during which a lot of events happened in Rimsky-Korsakov's life – his brother died; Nikolai got married to Nadezhda and they went abroad for their honey moon – to Switzerland and Northern Italy. Upon their return, in 1873, the premiere of Pskovityanka took place. The audience warmly received the opera, and in 1, 5 months there were 10 performances of it, and the house was always full.
Even in 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov left the Navy and joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He realized that he knew almost no music theory, and so he taught himself counterpoint, harmony, and music form. He became one of the world's greatest music theorists. He taught several students who achieved fame as composers, including Sergey Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky. The latter wrote afterwards: "I worked with him in this way. He would give me some pages of the piano score of a new opera he had just finished (Pan Voyevoda), which I was to orchestrate. When I had orchestrated a section, he would show me his own instrumentation of the same passage. I had to compare them, and then he would ask me to explain why he had done it differently. Whenever I was unable to do so, it was he who explained."
Prokofiev, however, said that "...my lack of respect for Rimsky-Korsakov's teaching did no prevent me from admiring his music; I attended the dress rehearsal and three successive performances of his Kitezh which had its premiere in the spring of 1907, and applauded until my hands ached."
Rimsky-Korsakov also edited and revised compositions that his friends Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky had left unfinished when they died. Orchestras and opera companies usually perform Rimsky-Korsakov's version of Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. Borodin's opera Prince Igor is usually performed in the version completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov.
In 1878 Rimsky-Korsakov created an opera May night after the story by N. Gogol. He drew inspiration from Ukrainian folk songs and Ukrainian nature – warm southern nights, silver shining moon under the mirror-smooth ponds. The opera is full of melody going straight from the heart and able to express the feelings of the characters as well as the scene action and dynamics. The composition of the opera is quite innovative: there are separate performances – songs, ensembles, scenes.
The May night was finished but the composer did not want to leave the world of fairy-tales with its striving for the beautiful Good and inevitable punishment for the ugly Evil. He asked the famous Russian playwright N. Ostrovsky permission to use his play Snegurochka (Snow maiden) for his next opera. He wrote libretto himself, and Ostrovsky approved of it. The plot of the Snow maiden allowed Rimsky-Korsakov to show the life of simple people who live in harmony with the nature, and to depict the way of their life, their beliefs and picturesque rituals. Snegurochka was staged in 1882. The staging was luxurious. Ostrovsky himself wrote afterwards: "Rimsky-Korsakov's music to my Snegurochka is amazing; I could never have imagined anything more suitable and expressive for the poetry of ancient pagan cult and this at first icy-cold and then fiery passionate heroine of the fairy-tale".
In 1899 the whole Russia celebrated the centenary of Alexander Pushkin's birth. Rimsky-Korsakov took active part in the celebration. He wrote an opera The tale of tsar Saltan, of his son, the mighty knight Gvidon, and of the beautiful Swan-princess to Pushkin's fairy-tale. It was staged in 1900 in the Private Opera House of S. Mamontov in Moscow. The decorations for it were made by a wonderfully innovative Russian painter M. Vrubel. The house was full, and the opera was the greatest success.
In 1902 Rimsky-Korsakov finished one of his most innovative works – the opera Koshchei the Deathless.
And then the dreadful day of January, 9, 1905 came. The St. Petersburg citizens were shocked by the "bloody Sunday". It was the day when crowds of simple people came to the Palace Square with a peaceful petition to the tsar where they asked for an 8-hour working day, prohibition of children's labor, improvement of their living and working conditions, salaries increasing etc. The people were shot by the tsarist troops, and that urged the beginning of the first Russian revolution. Rimsky-Korsakov, who stood out against the tsarist regime, was thrown out of the Conservatory. As a protest, its best professors – Glazunov, Lyadov and others left the Conservatory with him.
Rimsky-Korsakov now wanted to create an opera accusing the tsarist regime. The honest and straightforward composer realized that he was watched and that the censure wouldn't let such an opera to be staged, but he nevertheless decided to fulfill his citizen duty, though he knew that it would probably be for the last time. So in 1906 he started work on his Golden Cockerel opera after the poetic fairy-tale by A. Pushkin. It was finished in 1907. The opera was not allowed to be staged – the social satire was too sharp. It was staged later, in 1909, but Rimsky-Korsakov never lived to see it.
He had been seriously ill for some time then, and died on June, 21, 1908. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was buried in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg.
On the occasion of Rimsky-Korsakov's death, his student Igor Stravinsky composed a Funeral Dirge, and this was performed in St. Petersburg at the first concert of the autumn season, which was entirely dedicated to Rimsky's memory. Unfortunately, the score of this work was lost in the Russian Revolution; but if Stravinsky's memory could be trusted, it was the best of his works before The Firebird.