Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolas Andrejevitch


Russian composer; considered the greatest representative of the modern Russian School with the exception of Tschaikowsky. He was born at Tichvin; the son of a well-to-do landowner, and like Glinka, had many opportunities for coming in contact with Russian peasant life and folksong. He  showed musical talent early, and attempted composition at nine. His parents intended him for the navy, and sent him to St. Petersburg Naval Academy. Here he pursued music as a recreation, and met Balakirev, the leader of a band of young musical enthusiasts. They infected Rimsky-Korsakov with their disregard of and opposition to all theoretical education in music. He took piano lessons while in the Academy, and at the end of his course was sent away as a midshipman for three years. During this voyage he employed his spare time in the composition of a symphony, the first produced by a Russian, which was brought out through Balakirev's efforts in 1865, and attracted the attention of Tschaikowsky, who recognized a genius in the composer, and interested himself in the youth with such success that the latter realized his need of theoretical study, and forthwith took it up with such energy that he surprised his new friend and adviser with the progress he made. He continued in the naval service. In 1871 he became professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where a number of the younger generation of Russian composers, including Arensky, Glazounov and Liadov, were his pupils. In 1873 he was appointed inspector of marine bands, and the next year director of the Free School of Music, and also acting as assistant conductor at the Imperial Orchestra. In 1886 he became conductor of the Russian Symphony concerts, and the next year resigned his directorship of the Free School, his work as conductor there having ceased in 1881. In 1889 he directed two Russian concerts at the Trocadero, Paris. He married a gifted pianist, Nadesha Pourgould, who arranged for the piano many of his scores and those of other Russian composers; her work in this line receiving the commendation of Liszt. In October, 1907, he was appointed a member of the Paris Academy of Arts in the place of Edvard Grieg, recently deceased.

Rimsky-Korsakov has for some years stood at the head of Russian composers. He is probably the sanest and best balanced of them all, his music presenting a decided contrast to that of Tschaikowsky and many others of the school, in its optimism. He chooses subjects of a fanciful, romantic or grotesque nature, rather than the tragic or passionate, such as his friend excels in treating; though they often selected the same material for the librettos of their operas, their temperaments differ so widely that there is no real resemblance in their corresponding works. Rimsky-Korsakov uses the Russian sun legends to such an extent that he has been called a "sun worshiper." He has a sense of humor that is genuinely Russian and that often shows itself in his music. His " robust temperament " of which Pougin speaks, and the health and good fortune which have continually attended his career, have not conduced to give him the tenderness and sympathy possessed by Tschaikowsky. He excels in the symphonic form, and in his operas balances this with the lyrical; uses leading themes in his orchestral works, assigning certain themes to fixed instruments. In his orchestration he is said to be allied to the new German School of which Strauss is the most striking representative today, but in his melodic vein is inferior to the latter. He is a prolific composer, having written in almost every style, dramatic, orchestral, instrumental, and chamber-music, in song and in chorus. An eminent French critic, Jean Marnold, says of him: "His inspiration is exquisite, and the inexhaustible transformation of his themes is most interesting. Like other Russians, he sins through lack of cohesion and unity, and especially through a want of true polyphony .  . . But the dramatic intention is realized with unusual surety, and he shows a mastery and originality that are rarely found among northern composers."

His operas are The Maid of Pskov; A Night in May; and Snegorotchka. His best known work is the Czar's Bride, which made a marked success in 1891. It is a tragedy, and is more like the operas of Western Europe in style than the usual Russian drama. The overture has been much played in the United States. Milada, an opera-ballet, shows unusual power of modulation; Christmas Eve, founded on Gogol's story of Vakoul the Smith, is said to have one of the most distinguished scores that he has written. Others are Zarskaja Newjesta; The Immortal Katschschey; Mozart and Salieri; Saltan; Pan Voyevode; and The Wandering Jew. Servilia, the only opera of Rimsky-Korsakov's whose subject is not taken from Russian life, is a story of the Christian martyrs at Rome. His last opera is the tale of the now vanished town of Kitadge and the maiden Theouroma, incorporating an Oriental element as well as a Slavonic. Rimsky-Korsakov has also orchestrated Dargomyzky's Commodore, Mussorgsky's Khovanstchyna, and Borodin's Prince Igor.

His principal orchestral works are Sadko, and Antar, a "program symphony," which deserves more than passing mention. It is founded on an Oriental tale of a hero who, having killed a bird of prey that was pursuing a gazelle, is granted by a fairy three wishes of his choice, revenge, power and love. The work is in four movements each of the last three describing his enjoyment of one of the three things desired. Other orchestral numbers are Scheherezade, based on the Arabian Nights; a sinfonietta in A minor and two other symphonies in E minor and C major; two overtures, one in D major, from Russian themes, and the other, The Russian Passover, on themes from music of the Russian church; fairy tales; a Spanish caprice; and a fantasia on Servian themes. His instrumental and chamber-music includes a concert fantasia for violin with orchestra, on Russian themes; a serenade for cello and piano; a string quartet; romances and melodies. His choral works comprise choruses; a cantata, Switezianka; a collection of one hundred popular Russian songs, as well as thirty songs of another nature. His piano works include a suite, a group of four pieces, another of three, and six fugues. His concerto for piano in C sharp minor is dedicated to Liszt, and is considered quite worthy of the pianist, being pronounced a noble and dignified work, beautiful in design and superior in conception. He has also published a treatise on harmony.

Rimsky-Korsakov is thus described by one of his pupils: "Of tall stature, rather narrow shoulders, oblong face with a full-grown beard, expressive but small eyes with eyeglasses, he makes an excellent impression from the first. As a teacher he was always strict and meant business . . . Among composers of serious music he liked Mozart, but disliked Meyerbeer, whose compositions he ridiculed by playing them in a comical way, either too quick or too slow, or by altering the rhythm."