‘Fantasy first, self-discipline later’ might have been the motto of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical life, vividly described in his penetrating autobiography. The son of a noble family influenced by his much older brother to enter the St Petersburg Naval College in 1856, he took his first steps in composition four years later under the guidance of that influential doyen of Russian musical nationalism, Mily Balakirev. After an inspirational meeting, the 17-year-old naval cadet set off to sail the world and to work on the symphony Balakirev had encouraged him to write (part of it was completed off the English coast at Gravesend).
Back in St Petersburg, he contributed several significant scores as one of the group of composers gathered around Balakirev and known collectively as ‘The Mighty Handful’ (moguchaya kuchka) – chiefly the symphonic suite Antar, a tone poem about the legendary Novgorod minstrel Sadko that was to form the basis for his much later opera of that name, and his first opera, The Maid of Pskov (1868–72), much influenced by his close friend Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov.
What he later lamented in his autobiography as lacking in Balakirev’s teaching – ‘the technique of harmony and counterpoint, and an idea of musical forms’ – he learnt for himself from 1871 onwards as a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory who always kept one step ahead of his students. For a while, the effect on his compositions was stultifying; but he was soon back on track with the freshest of his fairy-tale operas, May Night (1878–9) and The Snow Maiden (1880–81). His magical orchestration came to the fore in three concert-hall scores composed in the single season of 1887–8: Capriccio espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture and the symphonic suite Sheherazade.
Parallel with his own fitful output at this time were his collegial efforts with fellow-composers from the group that had once, and so briefly, been ‘The Mighty Handful’ – working with Balakirev on scores by the father of Russian music, Glinka, and helping Borodin and Musorgsky with their long-term operatic projects.
Standing alone by the mid-1890s, he produced a steady stream of operas that range from the extended magic of Christmas Eve (1894–5) to the terse speech-melodies of Mozart and Salieri (1897). Collaboration with a poet well-versed in Russian folk tales, Vladimir Belsky, reached its peak in the deeply emotional fable The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1903–5).
By the time of his death in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov was something of a hero to the Russian left, a reputation bolstered by his resignation from the directorship of the Conservatory in solidarity with students sympathetic to the 1905 uprising and by tsarist censorship of his final opera, The Golden Cockerel (1906–7). In musical terms he remained essentially conservative, but his carefully restricted experiments in harmony and orchestration had a lasting impact on 20th-century music – from Stravinsky, his last and unofficial pupil, through to Messiaen and beyond.
Profile © David Nice