Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Rimsky-Korsakov came from a family of minor nobility. Following in the footsteps of his brother Voin, twenty years his senior and a rear admiral, Rimsky-Korsakov entered the Saint Petersburg Naval Academy. He met Mily Balakirev in 1861, and soon became his student. Unbelievably, Balakirev’s first assignment to the aspiring composer was an entire symphony, a task that took nearly four years to complete. In 1862 midshipman Rimsky-Korsakov was required to complete a three-year-long tour of duty aboard a clipper Almaz. He went to Norway and England and continued to New York, and South America. Upon his return to Russia in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov continued his studies with Balakirev and his symphony was performed later that year with his teacher at the podium.
Following the examples of Cui’s William Ratcliff and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov embarked upon his own operatic project—The Maid of Pskov, an opera set during the reign of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The composition was delayed by the project of orchestrating the unfinished manuscript of Dargomyzhsky’s Stone Guest. In 1871 Rimsky-Korsakov accepted a post at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, a move that initially angered the rest of his circle. Eventually, his presence at the conservatory served toward the reconciliation between the Handful and the academia. Accepting the post, Rimsky-Korsakov also embarked upon a major revision of his own compositional techniques. He undertook an extensive study of harmony, counterpoint and orchestration and as a result acquired compositional professionalism that others of his circle lacked. The Snow Maiden, a fairytale opera set during Russia’s semi-mythical pagan past, had a successful premier in 1882 at the Mariinsky Theater and established Rimsky-Korsakov as the leading composer of the Five.
Because of his technical proficiency, Rimsky-Korsakov became a de facto editor of the works of his comrades. Upon Mussorgsky’s tragic death in 1881, he collected every bit of his friend’s manuscripts and embarked upon a monumental task of completing and editing his unfinished compositions. Only due to his efforts Khovanshchina and Night on Bald Mountain became part of the standard repertoire. The same is true regarding Borodin’s Prince Igor—Rimsky-Korsakov acted as an adviser to Borodin during the late stages of composition and completed the work (along with Glazunov) upon Borodin’s sudden death in 1887.
In the late 1880’s Rimsky-Korsakov was exposed to the works of Richard Wagner when he witnessed a production of the Ring in Saint Petersburg. Wagner’s influence was particularly evident in the field of orchestration—already Rimsky-Korsakov’s forte, as well as in the subject of his next opera Mlada, that was drawn from the Slav mythology. By mid 1890’s Rimsky-Korsakov perfected his technique and established himself as one Russia’s leading composers. His output during the last fifteen years of his life was remarkable—he published The Christmas Eve, Sadko, Mozart and Salieri, Tsar’s Bride, Servilia, Pan Voyevoda, The Tale of Kitezh, Kashchey the Immortal, and The Golden Cockerel. Politically, Rimsky-Korsakov was always on the left of the spectrum and when the revolutionary events broke out in Saint Petersburg in 1905, he promptly joined the protesting students. He was consequently fired from the conservatory, but soon restored by its new director, Alexander Glazunov, his former student. At the time of his death in 1909 Rimsky-Korsakov was locked in a bitter dispute with the government sensors regarding the production of The Golden Cockerel, a fairytale opera that had strong political undertones. He died leaving no major work unfinished.
Rimsky-Korsakov composed 22 songs during his apprenticeship with Balakirev (Op. 2, 3, 4, 7, 8) and then did not return to the genre until late 1870’s (Op. 27-29). Then there was again an extended interruption in the composition of the romances, so much so, that in 1896 Cui remarked with chagrin that Rimsky-Korsakov composed mere 32 romances and “apparently does not have much interest in the genre” (Cui. The Russian Romance, Saint Petersburg 1896). Only a year later, Rimsky-Korsakov again approached the romance but now his method was different: if in the past, he always composed the harmonic progression first, allowing the melody to come out of harmony in a sort of instrumental manner, he attempted to create his new romances by composing the melody first, according to the rhythms and inflections of poetry. During 1897-98 Rimsky-Korsakov composed 47 romances. He later remarked that these romances served as preparatory exercises for the operatic compositional spree of his later years.