If you read Tuesday’s Wikipedia-heavy article about Rimsky-Korsakov, you’ll hopefully remember that he was basically a transitional figure in the Russian musical scene at the time, a member of the very Russian clique of composers known as ‘the five’, but also took part in forming the Belyayev circle, of which Tchaikovsky was later a part.
Anyway, this is Rimsky-Korsakov’s opus one, before he began his studies and while he was still very enamored with Balakirev and that bunch. The work is a young product of Balakirev’s cultivation of Russian music, and it was indeed considered to be ‘The First Russian Symphony,’ which might seem an odd statement when you consider that Rubinstein had written his ‘Ocean’ symphony a decade earlier. Balakirev’s first symphony got its start before this work, but remember, he was all wishy-washy about publishing, so it wouldn’t have gotten much recognition at the time.
As a great example of the kind of … staunchness with which this goal of Russian music was viewed, we have only to look at Cesar Cui’s comments to RK about the piece while he was out on deployment:
The symphony is good… We played it a few days ago at Balakirev’s—to the great pleasure of Stassov. It is really Russian. Only a Russian could have composed it, because it lacks the slightest trace of any stagnant Germanness.
Okay, then. Remember, Stasov was one of the ‘founders’ of The Five, having coined the name, although not a composer himself (he was a ‘tyrant’ of a music critic), and he must have been very pleased with himself. Granted, this work isn’t the greatest thing RK ever penned, but as an opus one, it really isn’t bad at all. It is very Russian-sounding, apparently coming from some themes that Balakirev noted down on some of his travels. That bunch was all quite pleased with the work, but it wasn’t as if it came naturally for RK.
Remember the music lessons he’d taken with that Kanille person? This work likely got its start around that time. He had “something like the beginning of a symphony in E-flat minor.” RK was later introduced to Balakirev, to whom he showed the
work. Balakirev approved of the direction he was headed, but apparently had many criticisms or suggestions, likely to make it more acceptably Russian, and in what was likely his youthful, enamored, impressionable state, he made these changes.
Strangely for the member of The Five who would later be famous for his orchestrations, he had issues with the orchestration of this first movement, which Balakirev helped him with, and apparently he was able to progress from there without much issue.
The rest of the symphony was apparently written on and off throughout the composer’s naval assignments, the slow movement having been written in England, and was eventually completed and premiered in December of 1865, with Balakirev (unsurprisingly) conducting.
Also, if you recall, military personnel were required to be in uniform even when off duty, so when the composer appeared in uniform on stage to accept a round of applause at the premiere, the audience was surprised to see a naval officer had written it. Well done! It was apparently well received and performed again only a few months later.
Perhaps unbeknownst to his Russian contemporaries, one of his main references with the issue of orchestration came from Berlioz’s treatise, written a few decades earlier. As stated above, Balakirev assisted with much of this process, but RK later said of that ‘help’ that:
“I felt that I was ignorant of many things,… but was convinced that Balakirev knew everything in the world, and he cleverly concealed from me and the others the insufficiency of his information. But in orchestral coloring and combination of instruments he was a good practical hand, and his counsels were invaluable to me.”
So he didn’t resent it; that’s good. The work was revised in 1884 and was strategically transposed into E minor instead of E flat minor, making it more approachable for amateur orchestras, apparently also reversing the order of the inner movements.
So that’s that about the history of the work. Let’s talk about the music.
It begins darkly, almost gloomy. The strings, all of it, feel very Russian. There are a few punches of sound in a string-heavy, foggy introduction, with timpani rolls, horn calls, tremolo strings, and everything. One supposes these orchestral effects (assuming they reflect the original version) may have been as a result of Balakirev’s influence, but it does sound very Russian. The first subject rises out of the quiet introduction and it is sufficiently crunchy and powerful, by far the most captivating theme we’ve heard in our Russian symphonies so far. Is it something I associate with Rimsky-Korsakov or Tchaikovsky or something…? There’s a clarinet solo tucked in there that introduces a lyrical contrasting theme. This is a short, succinct, tight first movement, but chock full of interesting stuff, holding closely to the two subjects from the beginning in a short but exciting development section. The first theme overshadows the second, which feels like an add-on rather than its own theme, and then the movement is over.
The slow movement (the one written abroad) is the longest of the symphony. It begins quietly, but even it has its more troubled, tense moments. The use of brass in this movement is wonderful; it isn’t just all weepy strings for a slow movement. There are bits of it that feel much like Rubinstein’s ‘Ocean‘ if not more so, if you imagine the composer in the navy on assignment very far from home. There are some real swells in this piece, mature sounding, well-orchestrated rich conflict, especially when you consider it came from a composer in the navy who was barely of legal age (American legal age, anyway). It’s broad and open and expressive and again, brass. And harp.
The scherzo feels like it comes right out of the theme from the first movement, equally crunchy, at once serious in nature, but almost lightly playful. The trio section is more subdued, more thinly orchestrated without losing texture or interest before the scherzo returns.
After the inner movements, the opening of the final movement feels like a breath of fresh air in the sunshine. While still Russian-sounding and rhythmically strong, it isn’t as atmospherically dramatic as the other movements.
Overall, the most compelling thing about this piece is that it feels like it has lots of raw power, perhaps waiting to be polished, focused, individualized; it’s youthful, maybe even naïve, but there’s lots here that betrays greatness. It is, however, overshadowed by works of the mature composer, Scheherazade and the second symphony, ‘Antar’, among others, perhaps.
All the intentional Russian-ness and what I personally might be hearing of his naval career and being far from home aside, it’s also just pretty good music, I’d say. There might not be anything spectacular about it, but of the symphonies we’ve hit on so far (and some yet to come) it’s probably the one I’ve enjoyed listening to the most, but also one I can see wearing out its welcome after repeated listens.
If nothing else, the piece is an indication of what talent the composer had regardless of the influences behind him, but also that those influences were quite effective at instilling a Russianness to the work. As you perhaps read a few days ago, though, the composer himself would make some changes, and also be a large influence on other composers who would prove to be very successful themselves. We shall speak of some of them in the coming weeks. But before that, we still have two other contemporaries of Rimsky-Korsakov to address. See you next week.