RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, NIKOLAI (1844–1908), Russian composer and conservatory pedagogue.
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov began his career during the 1860s as one of the composers of the "Mighty Handful," a group that sought to establish a Russian national style in music. (The other members were Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, and the leader Mily Balakirev.) Outside Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov's most celebrated works are the symphonic suite Scheherazade, the Russian Easter Festival overture, and the orchestral showpiece Capriccio espagnol, but he also produced fifteen operas, nearly ninety songs, about twenty other orchestral works (including three symphonies), fifteen chamber works, and more. He completed several unfinished works by his colleagues in the "Handful," and more controversially he revised Mussorgsky's finished opera Boris Godunov. A profoundly influential pedagogue, he wrote textbooks on harmony and orchestration and taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1871 until his death in 1908, with a brief hiatus in 1905.
Born on 18 March (6 March, old style) 1844 in Tikhvin, near Novgorod, Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrated an interest in music as a child but was educated for a career as a naval officer at the St. Petersburg Naval Academy. In 1861, while still a student, he met Balakirev and began composition lessons with him. Balakirev was himself self-taught and did not value systematic conservatory instruction. Instead he taught his pupils by playing great music with them at the piano, all the while explaining, examining, and criticizing each work piecemeal. He then put his students to work writing their own pieces, dissected their music the same way, and sent them off to implement necessary changes. In such fashion Rimsky-Korsakov completed four sizable orchestral works, several songs, and the opera The Maid of Pskov within just ten years.
On the strength of this catalog, Rimsky-Korsakov was offered a post as professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1871, which he accepted. Profoundly embarrassed at the gaps in his own training, he then began an intensive program of self-education. Over the next few years he acquired a disciplined technique, which he immediately put to use in several new orchestral works, revisions of old works, and two new operas, May Night and The Snow Maiden. First produced in 1882, The Snow Maiden is still regarded as a pivotal work in Rimsky-Korsakov's development.
After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov volunteered to prepare his friend's legacy for publication, beginning with the unfinished opera Khovanshchina. In all his editions of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov corrected passages that he thought were technically flawed, a procedure for which subsequent generations have severely criticized him. After Borodin's death in 1887, he and Alexander Glazunov completed that composer's opera Prince Igor. Then in 1887 and 1888 he wrote the colorfully orchestrated symphonic works that made him famous in Europe—Capriccio espagnol, Scheherazade, and the Russian Easter Festival overture. The fantastic opera-ballet Mlada, written under the spell of Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung, was completed in 1890 and first performed in 1892. It marked the beginning of an even more sophisticated style of orchestration.
The early 1890s were a fallow period in Rimsky-Korsakov's creative work, which ended only with the composition of the opera Christmas Eve (1894–1895). He then worked energetically until his death in Lyubensk on 21 June (8 June, old style) 1908, completing ten more operas, many fine songs, a few minor orchestral works, a set of memoirs, and an orchestration textbook. Foremost among the late operas are Sadko, The Tsar's Bride (a lyrical work and his most popular opera in Russia), The Tale of Tsar Saltan (from which "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" is extracted), and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia. His final opera, Le coq d'or (The golden cockerel), is a satire of the tsarist bureaucracy and the only one of his operas that he did not live to hear—the censor delayed its production. It also is his only opera to have at least a modest foothold in the repertoire in the West, mainly because of the lavish production given to it by Sergei Diaghilev in Paris in 1914.
Rimsky-Korsakov's music is known for its brilliant orchestration and its systematic exploration of the harmonic resources of two synthetic scales, one consisting of consecutive whole steps, the other of alternating whole steps and half steps. His operas illustrate two categories that recur often in nineteenth-century Russian opera: works based on subjects from Russian history (The Maid of Pskov, The Tsar's Bride) and works based in Russian folklore and fairy tale (The Snow Maiden, Mlada, Sadko, Tsar Saltan, Kitezh, Le coq d'or). The symphonic suite Scheherazade extends the Russian "oriental" idiom found in Balakirev (Tamara) and several others. The popular Russian Easter Festival overture uses liturgical melodies in a glittering evocation of the Russian Orthodox Easter service. Rimsky-Korsakov's influence as a teacher extends throughout twentieth-century Russian music because many major figures—including Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich—were taught by him or one of his pupils.
Yastrebtsev, V. V. Reminiscences of Rimsky-Korsakov. Edited and translated by Florence Jonas. New York, 1985. Translation and abridgement of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov: Vospominaniya (1959–1960).
Abraham, Gerald. Rimsky-Korsakov: A Short Biography. London, 1945. Reprint, New York, 1976.
Seaman, Gerald R. Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov: A Guide to Research. New York, 1988.
Robert William Oldani