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Classical Composers A-Z: Nicholas Andreivitch Rimsky-Korsakov

Peter Wintersgill presents a portrait of the Russian composer, Nicholas Andreivitch Rimsky-Korsakov, who served for a time as a naval officer.

Born
18th March, 1844, in Tikhvin, Novgorod, North Russia.

Father
Andrei, aristocratic naval family.

Mother
Not Known.

Childhood
Precocious in musical development, learnt piano from age six, started composing at nine.

Adolescence
Entered Corps of Naval Cadets in St. Petersburg at 12, left at 18. Met Balakirev at 17 in 1861, who impressed and influenced him very much.

Early Adult Life
Became one of the "Russian Five" nationalist composers; the others were Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. He became a naval officer and went to sea in 1862 till 1865. Started to write his First Symphony while at sea, despite his ignorance of harmony and composition. He finished it after return to dry land with the help of Balakirev, who conducted the premiere in 1865.

He wrote his Second Symphony and the Symphonic Poem Sadko in 1868. The first was the first real Russian symphony (cf. Tchaikovsky's first in 1866). He was appointed Professor of Composition at St. Petersburg Conservatoire in 1871, the year he wrote his first opera. The Maid of Pskov.

He retired from the navy in 1873 and became Inspector of naval bands, and later Director of the Free School of Music, where his students included Liadov, Glazunov and Stravinsky. At this time he started writing chamber music, e.g. the string quartet and a piano quintet.

Like Vaughan Williams he studied his country's folk songs and edited various collections of them. His next two operas were May Night (1878) and the Snow Maiden (1880).

Later Adult Life
He was a great reviser of his own works and a great arranger and editor of other people's works, e.g. Borodin's Prince Igor, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshcina, also Dargomyshsky's The Stone Guest. His main orchestral works, apart from his three symphonies were Sheherazade and The Russian Easter Festival (both 1888) and the well-known Spanish Caprice (1887).

At this stage he returned to operas, with Sadko (1896) with its Song of the Indian Guest, the Tale of the Tsar Saltan (1900) with its well-known Flight of the Bumble Bee, via the Tale of the Invizible City of Kitezh (1903) to the Golden Cockerel (1907) with its Hymn to the Sun.

In 1873 at the age of 29 he married a fine pianist named Nadezhda, whose sister was an opera singer. Between them they helped to popularise his works. In 1878 their son Andrei was born, who became a musical journalist, writing critical accounts of contemporary works and researching them. He also wrote a biography of his father and published some of his letters.

In 1905 he sympathised with the revolt of the St. Petersburg students against the Tsarist police; as a result he was dismissed from his post at the Conservatoire. In protest against this high-handed action, three of his former students, Glazunov, Liadov and Blumenfelt, resigned their posts. A little later the position was reversed and he was reinstated. In the meantime production of his operas was banned, in the case of the Golden Cockerel till after his death.

He finally died at Lyubensk, St. Petersburg, on 21st June, 1908, aged 64. While he was less brilliant than his colleagues in "The Famous Five", it is thought that his influence was longer lasting, by virtue of its effect on his students, especially Stravinsky.

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