Influential People: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Ilya Repin’s work is amazing; he also painted RK.
From Wikipedia

So this is perhaps the first name of the bunch that people might recognize. The only thing of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov which we have discussed so far is his piano concerto, quite a while back. We will reference that piece later, but so far, we haven’t gotten to any of his most famous works, the ones that most anyone thinks of when they hear his name (or would recognize even if they don’t know RK wrote them)- Cappricio Espagnole, Scheherazade, and the Russian Easter Festival Overture.
In the article on Balakirev last week, we introduced The Five, the handful of likeminded nationalistic composers focused on writing distinctly Russian music. I would argue, from solely my own impressions and opinion, that outside of Russia, RK is perhaps the most well-known of that bunch, although Mussorgsky and Borodin are both quite famous (only the latter of whom will feature in our series).
RK has the distinction of being perhaps the most ‘Western’ of the bunch, although that is an entirely subjective statement. While he agreed with the sentiment (agenda, even) of creating explicitly Russian music, he also gained an exposure, appreciation, and talent for Western musical techniques, and showed an influence from his exposure to Wagner, something the others (with the exception, probably of Borodin) were likely to have avoided.
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born in March of 1844 into “an aristocratic family” a few hundred kilometers outside St. Petersburg. The family was aristocratic, but also had a long history of military service, and RK would follow suit. His mother apparently played the piano, but slowly, and RK took lessons from the age of six, and even began composing at the age of ten, but reportedly showed little interest in either, being more drawn to literature. Inaccurate as it sounds, based on exciting stories from his older brother, who apparently became a famous navigator, young Nikolai joined the Imperial Russian Navy at the improbable age of twelve, graduating at the age of 18. He took piano lessons with someone at the school, a plan arranged or approved by his brother, who worked there, to help him overcome his shyness. While young NRK apparently had little interest in piano itself, a series of lessons the young man had eventually awakened his love for music, and that was the beginning. Through some of his teachers, he was “exposed to a great deal of new music.”
One can imagine what an eye-opening experience this would be. In an environment where, presumably, Western music was looked down upon and there was no access to mp3s, CDs, or even 8-tracks, no recordings of any kind, and music must only be enjoyed live, how would a young man in the navy ever stumble across some of this stuff? Well, fortunately he did, and it apparently made a huge impression. His Wikipedia page mentions Glinka and Schumann by name, but also states that he was later influenced by the works of composers such as Berlioz and Liszt (go back and listen to the piano concerto, linked above).
Interestingly, though, by that time, his brother saw no further need for the music lessons, which RK now found interesting, and they were cancelled. His talent was at least identified, and this last teacher of his, one Feodor Kanile introduced him to Balakirev, who introduced him to Cui and Mussorgsky, who together made up 60% of The Five. The young Nicky seemed to be captivated by:

real business discussions [Rimsky-Korsakov’s emphasis] of instrumentation, part writing, etc! And besides, how much talking there was about current musical matters! All at once I had been plunged into a new world, unknown to me, formerly only heard of in the society of my dilettante friends. That was truly a strong impression.”

One perhaps wonders if, at this impressionable age, the young composer (about the same age as the other three aforementioned men, all very young) would
have been as easily influenced by anyone else, if the impression was simply a matter of timing more than anything. What if he’d run into, oh, Bruckner, or Brahms? Wikipedia elaborates on the prevailing attitudes of the composers at the time, stating:

[they] preferred tastes running “toward Glinka, Schumann and Beethoven’s late quartets”.[30] Mendelssohn was not thought of highly, Mozart and Haydn “were considered out of date and naïve”, and J.S. Bach merely mathematical and unfeeling.[30] Berlioz “was highly esteemed”, Liszt “crippled and perverted from a musical point of view … even a caricature”, and Wagner discussed little.

RK admits that in these discussions, he “listened to these opinions with avidity and absorbed the tastes of Balakirev, Cui and Mussorgsky without reasoning or examination” and that many of the pieces being discussed “were played before me only in fragments, and I had no idea of the whole work”. Bias…

In any case, they cultivated in their newest member a certain taste for certain music, and he even shared a flat with Mussorgsky for a while, scheduling ahead of time which part of the day was allotted for whom at the piano. Needless to say, at this point, the composer was instilled with a distinct passion for music, especially the Russian stuff, and was acknowledged for his talent in orchestration. These are the beginnings of his career.
At 27 years of age, he took up a post at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, even as he maintained a post in the navy, being required by law to stay in uniform even when off duty.
This is a long quote, and for that I apologize, but it’s wonderful, so I reproduce it here in full:

Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation at this time was as a master of orchestration, based on Sadko and Antar.[40] However, he had written these works mainly by intuition.[40] His knowledge of musical theory was elemental; he had never written any counterpoint, could not harmonize a simple chorale, nor knew the names or intervals of musical chords.[40] He had never conducted an orchestra, and had been discouraged from doing so by the navy, which did not approve of his appearing on the podium in uniform.[41] Aware of his technical shortcomings,[42] Rimsky-Korsakov consulted Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,[43] with whom he and the others in The Five had been in occasional contact.[44] Tchaikovsky, unlike The Five, had received academic training in composition at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory,[45] and was serving as Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory.[46] Tchaikovsky advised him to study.

What it seems is that RK’s real seriousness about his career began with his job at the conservatory, which seems surprising that he had considering his above deficiencies… In fact, Wiki even mentions that part of his purpose in taking a three-year sabbatical in which he basically learned music theory was to “stay one step ahead of his students.” Pressure, no?
In any case, it produced a very talented, knowledgeable composer in someone who already had a gift. The interesting thing was, it also seems to be the thing that caused some controversy in his career. In short, he ended up more ‘German’ than his contemporaries in the five, as explained in this section of the Wiki article. He also came to spend more time with Tchaikovsky, four years his senior, and we might discuss the Belyayev circle and all of that in another article. In short, Rimksy-Korsakov did not limit his influence to The Five, accepting far more German tradition, even being greatly influenced by Wagner’s operas, which made enough of an impression that he composed opera almost exclusively after he heard them.
Vladimir Stasov, influential figure who coined the term by which ‘the mighty handful’ became known, said:

…all the best Russian musicians have been very skeptical of book learning and have never approached it with the servility and the superstitious reverence with which it is approached to this day in many parts of Europe…

This was partially due to Balakirev’s (lack of and therefore) disdain for academic training, which Rimsky-Korsakov initially identified with, but also appreciated the value of good training. He said:

Sometimes one needs advice, but one must study … All of us, that is, I myself and Borodin, and Balakirev, and especially Cui and Mussorgsky, did disdain these things. I consider myself lucky that I bethought myself in time and forced myself to work. As for Balakirev, owing to his insufficient technique he writes little; Borodin, with difficulty; Cui, carelessly; and Mussorgsky, sloppily and often incoherently.

Them’s fightin’ words. Anyway, there’s lots of complicated history about opinions and politics and disdain and this camp vs. that one, but his effect on Russian music can perhaps be summed up by stating that he was a sort of transition: he was molded by the Russianness of Balakirev and Co., but balanced that out with more ‘Western’ training and technique.
An extension (or perhaps realization) of this was the large amount of students he taught and the popularity of conservatory education during and after his time. Again, lazily quoting Wikipedia:

Rimsky-Korsakov taught theory and composition to 250 students over his 35-year tenure at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, “enough to people a whole ‘school’ of composers.” This does not include pupils at the two other schools where he taught, including Glazunov, or those he taught privately at his home, such as Igor Stravinsky.[144]Apart from Glazunov and Stravinsky, students who later found fame included Anatoly Lyadov, Alexander Spendiaryan, Sergei Prokofiev, Ottorino Respighi, Witold Maliszewski, Mykola Lysenko, Artur Kapp, and Konstanty Gorski.

A few of those names don’t jump out at me, but most do, and four of the above will make appearances in our series, which is perhaps the main reason he gets his own Influential People post. He was very influential, even with students who you wouldn’t immediately associate with him, like Stravinsky. Nikolai Myaskovsky is another of his students, and I’m not sure why Wiki didn’t include him in the above group. It’s amazing the influence he had as a teacher.
Honestly, there are lots and lots of details in this man’s long and complicated history (as was true of the previous two Influential People posts), so just go read the whole Wikipedia article. I tried to, as succinctly as possible, put the composer in context both with and against his fellow members of The Five and give some context to where he sits in this century of Russian music that we’ll be talking about. His name is one of the biggest, but the work of his we’ll be discussing isn’t, although it’s quite a solid piece. See you then.

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