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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter R

Letter R

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) is one of the group of 19th century Russian composers known as 'The Mighty Handful'. Born in Tikhvin to a music-loving family, he was destined for a career in the Russian Navy, Rimsky-Korsakov's move to St Petersburg at the age of 12, to enter Naval College, introduced him to a world of concert music and opera; he heard Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and - crucially - was bowled over by Glinka's Life for the Tsar and the oriental music in Ruslan and Ludmila. Embarking on private musical tuition, he came under the influence of the leader of the 'Mighty Handful'. Balakirev, who challenged him to write a symphony. An extended naval tour of duty truncated Rimsky's musical activities, but foreign travel allowed him to attend concerts and operas in London and New York. Throughout his twenties, Rimsky's experience of, an involvement in music grew: he completed his Symphony, and was entrusted with the completion of Dhargomyzhsky's opera, The Stone Guest; Rimsky was to go to serve as orchestrator (or re-orchestrator) of many contemporary works, most notably Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov which lay in various states of incompleteness due to the chaotic and dissolute life-style of Rimsky's composer friend, Mussorgsky. Though remaining widely admired for the skill, clarity and sheer colour of his orchestrations, Rimsky's talent was nonetheless largely self taught.

In 1872 he completed his first opera, The Maid of Pskov, and many more operas were to follow; aside from the opera house, Rimsky is best known for his symphonies, tone-poem Sheherazade, and the occasional pieces, Capriccio Espagnole, Flight of the Bumble Bee, and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. His operas are largely drawn from Russian fables and fairy tales: May Night, Christmas Eve, Sadko, The Legend of Tsar Saltan, Kashcheï the Immortal, and the opera with one of the longest names in the genre: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia. His last opera, The Golden Cockerel (1906-7), is a dangerously poltical, satirical comedy which earned a government ban; the opera resulted from Rimsky's temporary exclusion from his professorship at the St Petersburg Conservatory for daring to express sympathy with radical students in 1905.

Stravinsky came into contact with Rimsky through the latter's son Volodya, who was a fellow law student. Recognising that there was a talent which might not benefit from the pedagogical approach of the Conservatory (where he was himself a professor), Rimsky counselled Stravinsky to avoid it and to undertake private tuition; Rimsky went on to play a significant part in this, in the next few years - his musical legacy to Stravinsky is most clearly to be heard in the Firebird ballet.

© Graeme Kay/BBC

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