Lesson Tutor: Classical Composer Biography: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Classical Composer Biography : Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
by Betty Fry

Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ was my first choice to play as I began to write about him, because, above all others, this famous piece of music brings his name to mind. And now that I know the story behind the music, the vision of a bumble bee in full and angry flight becomes even more realistic.

The fairy tale opera from which it comes ‘The Tale of Tsar Salta’ is based on a poem by the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Tsar Saltan’s son, Guidon, is washed up on a desert island. Even so, he rescues an enchanted princess, and all ends happily.

In this famous orchestral interlude, Guidon has turned into a bumblebee to pursue and sting two villainous aunts who have persecuted him.

Technically it is a wonderful study in the use of chromatic runs – using all the notes in the octave. Violins and then flutes portray the magically transformed Guidon, sounding just like the little furry creature with these dizzying sequences.

Besides the orchestral version, ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ has been arranged for almost every instrument from the accordion to the xylophone. One of the most renowned performances was recorded by the virtuoso pianist Gyorgy Cziffra.

When the opera first appeared in English on a New York stage in 1937, it was renamed ‘The Bumblebee Prince’ after this well know extract from the work.

Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, Russia on the 18th March 1844. His father was a wealthy and distinguished man who had governed a province, so that Rimsky was born with advantages.

In his autobiography ‘Chronicle of my Musical Life’ he wrote that musical ability came to him very early. He started learning the piano at the age of six and soon showed an interest in the sheet music in his home. His earliest composition was an ‘overture’ for piano written when he was eleven.

However there was a naval tradition in his family, and as music was not yet considered a career, even by himself, in 1856 he followed his elder brother’s example and entered a school for naval cadets.

But his student years still left time for music, including taking more piano lessons, seeing various operas, and attending orchestral concerts that included Beethoven symphonies, and the music of his compatriot Glinka, music that fascinated him because of its Russianness and brilliant orchestral colour.

When the pull of music became so strong that he wished to abandon his service career, his family refused him permission to do so, and instead he served at sea as a midshipman for over two years. Even so he managed to attend an operatic performance at Convent Garden in London, and completed the slow movement of his symphony.

He returned to Russia as (in his own words) ‘an officer dilettante who sometimes enjoyed playing or listening to music’. For the rest of the decade he combined continuing naval duties ashore with an existence as a musician, producing several new compositions.

In July 1871, although still a naval lieutenant and without formal training in composition, he accepted a post at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, teaching himself in secret to stay ahead of his pupils.

Rimsky finally resigned his naval commission in May 1873 when a government position of Inspector of Naval Bands was created and offered to him, which he accepted and held from 1873 to 1884.

In 1882 he married Nadezhda Purgold who was a fine pianist as well as a great beauty. They then went on a prolonged honeymoon to Switzerland and Italy. When they eventually returned, helped and supported by his wife, he advanced in skill and renown, producing compositions in several genres, but principally operas and symphonic music.

At this time Rimsky also became the leading member of a group of Russian composers known as ‘The Five’ or sometimes ‘The Mighty Handful’. The others were Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky.

They were all amateurs in the sense that they came to music from an affluent background, or from other walks of life. But between them they created a Russian ‘nationalist’ school of music with a truly Russian voice. However Rimsky Korsakov, a master of glittering orchestration, was the leading light. He wrote more music than the rest of them put together.

But Rimsky selflessly devoted his time, skill, and energy to the music of his Russian friends, notably Mussorgsky, who died in 1881 leaving his music in some disorder. Rimsky prepared it for performance and publication. He also helped after Borodin’s death in 1887, to finish the orchestration of his opera ‘Prince Igor’

Yet in spite of this grouping of like minds, Rimsky was no narrow nationalist as can be seen from the Spanish and ‘ Arabian Nights’ settings of the ‘Spanish Capriccio’ and ‘Sheherazade’. Also his opera ‘Sadko’ is set in ‘Novgorod, and the bottom of the sea’ and includes a ‘Viking Song’ and ‘Song of India’.

And the latter is what I chose to play to bring me back on an even keel after the busy buzzing of the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’. In the opera ‘Sadko’, an Indian merchant invited to sing an ancient song about his country, chooses the ‘Song of India’.

It tells of countless diamonds in the grottoes, and pearls of the sea in his far-away land; of a fabulous ruby on which the legendary bird, the phoenix, sits and sings in a heavenly voice; how the bird has a girl’s face; how its outstretched wings can cover the entire earth; and that whoever hears its singing forgets all else.

The enchanting instrumental version opened with a gentle woodwind introduction which brought in the haunting theme. Then the strings took up the swaying, languorous melody whose seductive rhythms carried a hint of danger. 

In fact later in the opera itself the chorus will warn Sadko to beware of the mysterious bird, and the strange, troubling land it comes from.

At times Rimsky suffered from something of a creative block as regards his own music, perhaps because he was so busy helping with the unfinished work of the friends who had died.

But he did recover from this malaise and such fine works as the symphonic suite ‘Sheherazade’, and the opera ‘The Golden Cockerel’ belong to the latter part of his life. He died in Lyubensk in June of 1908 from angina pectoris.

Rimsky also served Russian music in other ways. He wrote a highly influential work on orchestration, and was the teacher of, among others, the young Stravinsky and Prokofiev. In this way he extended his influence well into the modern age.

As a young man Rimsky sailed to many far away places, and also steeped himself in Russian myth and legend. These experiences and influences fired his musical imagination.

He was, at the same time, one of the most inspired composers for the large Romantic orchestra. Whether writing for the concert hall or for the opera house, few composers have ever produced a more brilliant and exotic body of orchestral music than Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

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