Although Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov composed in most of the usual forms, it is for his operas and orchestral works that he is chiefly remembered. It is also in these compositions that his best music is to be found. He did compose choral works, chamber and instrumental music and songs but this part of his output is neither widely known about by the general music lover nor thought very highly of by the musicologist. Indeed, Gerald Abraham, a prolific biographer of the composer, when writing for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan, 1980) claimed that Rimsky-Korsakov's solo piano compositions, although including some well-made fugues, are, ‘like the handful of chamber works, negligible in value.' In his book - Six Great Russian Composers (Rockliff, 1946) - Donald Brook also suggested that several of the minor works Rimsky-Korsakov produced, in particular the piano pieces, were ‘absolutely devoid of the vivid spontaneity that characterizes so much of his music'. Apart from the aforementioned fugues, the piano works include two or three sets of variations (one on a theme by the composer's eldest son, Misha), various preludes, scherzos and the like, and, written in collaboration with Borodin, Cui, Liadov and others, a set of Paraphrases on that irritating little tune known in English as ‘chopsticks' and in Russian as Táti-táti.
Rimsky-Korsakov had started taking piano lessons at the age of six but, before long, it became obvious that his main interest was not in original piano music but in transcriptions for piano of excerpts from famous operas. These he would play by himself or as duets with his teachers. One of his earliest attempts at composition - in 1855 - took the form of what he called a ‘sort of overture for the piano' which, although never finished, apparently gave him great pleasure. In his autobiography, My Musical Life (Faber and Faber 1989), he described how it was the form of the piece that pleased him most for it was to start adagio and then gradually speed up through andante, moderato, allegretto and allegro, finally arriving at presto.
In addition to his love of music, the young Rimsky-Korsakov had a passion for all things nautical and, despite the fact that he had not yet so much as set eyes on the sea, he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his brother and become a sailor; the elder by twenty-two years, Voyin Rimsky-Korsakov was, by then, a naval lieutenant. In July 1856, Nikolay enrolled for a period of six years as a cadet at the Naval College in St Petersburg at which his brother was later to become the Director. During this time he did not neglect his music but continued with his piano lessons, his most influential teacher being Théodore Canille. Under Canille's tuition Rimsky-Korsakov learnt to appreciate the music of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Chopin and improved his expertise as a piano duettist. It was also Canille who introduced him to Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev.
Rimsky-Korsakov was immediately impressed by Balakirev both as a person and as a musician. For his part, Balakirev saw in the young naval cadet a promising composer and straightaway, as was his wont, started to take charge of his new protégé's musical life. Having shown Balakirev a symphony he had been working on, Rimsky-Korsakov was instructed to continue with it. This he did under Balakirev's supervision until November 1862 when he was sent as a midshipman on the clipper Almuz for a voyage which, over the next two or three years, was to take him half way across the world. Despite this separation from his new musical friends - he had also by then met fellow composers Modest Mussorgsky and César Cui and the influential critic, Vladimir Vasiliyevich Stassov - Rimsky-Korsakov was still encouraged to keep working on his symphony. Indeed, Balakirev wrote to him insisting he should make progress with its slow movement. By then the Almuz had arrived in London and, in his autobiography, Rimsky-Korsakov tells how, without a piano on board, he had to play through what he had written on pianos he found in the public houses of Gravesend.
Back in St Petersburg in September 1865 he rejoined the Balakirev circle, completed his symphony and was present when Balakirev himself conducted its highly successful first performance on 31 December. It was at about that time that Rimsky-Korsakov was introduced to the chemist and composer, Alexander Borodin, who along with Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov was to form the group referred to by Stassov as ‘the Mighty Handful'. Some eighteen months after that first performance of his symphony, Rimsky-Korsakov started work on what he called a ‘musical picture'. The subject for this new composition was Sadko, a rich merchant who had lived in Novgorod during the twelfth century and around whom many legends had grown up. It seems that the idea of transforming one of these legends into music came originally from Stassov who had suggested it to Balakirev who had then passed it to Mussorgsky who eventually handed it on to Rimsky-Korsakov.
Work on this new piece was begun on 26 July 1867 while the composer was staying with his brother in Vyborg. Before long, however, his naval duties required him to embark on a month's cruise in the Gulf of Finland so it was not until October that Sadko was completed. As Rimsky-Korsakov explained in a letter to Mussorgsky: ‘Sadko was finished on 12 October and has already been sent to the binder's. I'll tell you that I am entirely pleased with it, this is decidedly the best thing I've done. To you Modest, profound thanks are due for the idea you suggested to me at Cui's, on the eve of [Cui's wife] Malvina's departure for Minsk. Thanks once again. Now I shall pause, for my noddle has been played out a bit from the strenuous exertion. Mily [Balakirev] is decidedly pleased with Sadko and did not want to make any remarks.' (Rimsky-Korsakov was to return to the story of Sadko in the 1890s when he created an opera on the subject.)
Rimsky-Korsakov has also left a detailed description both of the programme he had in mind when dealing with Sadko in orchestral terms and of the various compositions that had inspired him while composing it. ‘The introduction - picture of the calmly surging sea - contains the harmonic and modulatory basis of the beginning of Liszt's ‘Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne', he explained. ‘The beginning of the Allegro, depicting Sadko's fall into the sea and his being dragged to the depths by the Sea King, is, in method, reminiscent of the moment when Ludmilla is spirited away by Chernomor in Act I of [Glinka's opera] Ruslan and Ludmilla... The D major movement depicting the feast in the Sea King's realm, harmonically and to a certain degree melodically as well, recalls partly Balakirev's Song of the Goldfish, which was then a favourite of mine, and the introduction to Rusalka's recitative in Act IV of Dargomyzhsky's opera Rusalka. The dance theme of the third movement, as well as the cantabile theme following it, is entirely original. The variations on these two themes passing into a gradually swelling storm were composed partly under the influence of certain passages in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, partly as representing certain echoes of Balakirev's Tamara...
The closing movement of Sadko, as well as its introductory movement, ends with a beautiful chord passage of independent origin.' The first performance of Sadko took place, under the baton of Balakirev, on 9 December 1867 and, according to the composer, went off well with the orchestration satisfying everybody present. Such was the audience's appreciation the composer was called back to the stage several times. When the piece was performed again two years later in a slightly revised form, Borodin referred to it as ‘a delight' and the critic, Alexander Nikolayevich Serov, who was generally antagonistic towards contemporary Russian music, noted that ‘in the midst of his ill-fated entourage', its composer ‘blazes like a diamond among cobblestones'.
When published in 1870, Sadko appeared in two forms; as an orchestral score and in an arrangement for piano duet by Nadezhda Nikolayevna Purgold. Rimsky-Korsakov had first met the Purgold family in the spring of 1868 at the home of Alexander Sergeievich Dargomyzhsky who at that time was working on his opera, The Stone Guest. Nadezhda Nikolayevna was a highly intelligent musician and an excellent pianist. Indeed, she had received a far better musical training than Rimsky-Korsakov. A composer in her own right - one of her works being another ‘musical picture' entitled The Enchanted Spot - she was particularly adept at making piano reductions of contemporary orchestral works. These included, in addition to Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko and Antar (variously referred to by him as his Second Symphony and a symphonic suite), piano duet arrangements of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, Romeo and Juliet, and his Second Symphony. She would also accompany at the piano rehearsals of operas and on such occasions was addressed by Mussorgsky as ‘Dear Orchestra'.
Not long after their first meeting Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a song which he dedicated to Nadezhda Nikolayevna and in 1871 - the year in which, despite his lack of musical qualifications, he was appointed Professor of Practical Composition at the St Petersburg Conservatory - the couple became engaged. Their marriage took place the following year on 12 July with Mussorgsky as best man. Nadezhda Nikolayevna was soon to become a very important influence in her husband's life, both personally and musically.
In 1873 Rimsky-Korsakov was given the opportunity to combine his two careers when he was appointed Inspector of Naval Bands. He took this position very seriously and, knowing that he still had a lot to learn, took with him on holiday that year several musical instruments - including a flute, a clarinet and a trombone - so that he could, if not actually learn to play them, learn how they were played. Over the years he gained further expertise in orchestration by orchestrating works by those of his friends and contempories who had died prematurely; works such as Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest, Mussorgsky's Khovanshchina and Boris Godunov and Borodin's Prince Igor.
It was in 1887, while he was working on Borodin's unfinished opera, that Rimsky-Korsakov broke off to compose a new piece of his own. This is how he describes the circumstances in his memoirs: ‘Throughout the summer I worked assiduously on the orchestration of Prince Igor and managed to accomplish a great deal. In the middle of the summer this work was interrupted: I composed the Capriccio Espagnol from the sketches of my projected virtuoso violin fantasy on Spanish themes. According to my plans the Capriccio was to glitter with dazzling orchestra colour and, manifestly, I had not been wrong. The work of orchestrating Prince Igor also came easily, without strain, and was evidently a success'.
So successful was the Capriccio Espagnol that, during the rehearsal for its first performance later in 1887, the members of the orchestra kept bursting into applause. Delighted with their response, the composer immediately asked them if he could dedicate the piece to the orchestra; not surprisingly, they too were delighted. At the concert, the audience also demanded an encore and, although the critics, according again to Rimsky-Korsakov, agreed that the Capriccio was ‘a magnificently orchestrated
piece', the composer demurred. ‘It is a brilliant composition for orchestra' he insisted, maintaining that ‘the change of timbres, the felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each instrument, the brief virtuoso cadenzas for solo instruments, the rhythm of the percussion instruments and so on, here constitute the very essence of the composition, and not its clothing, i.e. orchestration'. Despite the importance to him of these orchestral colours, Rimsky-Korsakov (not his wife this time) made a piano duet reduction of this work and had it published in 1888 alongside the orchestral version.
It was also Rimsky-Korsakov who created the piano duet version of his other great orchestral masterpiece, Scheherazade. This task took him, apparently, a fortnight during the spring of 1889. (It is interesting to note that the performers on this recording agree that, in the arrangement by Rimsky-Korsakov's wife of Sadko, the parts are more intelligently distributed between the players than they are in the two works arranged by the composer himself. It has already been noted that Nadezhda Nikolayevna was a fine pianist but, according to Balakirev at least, it seems that her husband was not.)
Following the description in his autobiography of the events surrounding the composition and first performance of his Capriccio Espagnol, Rimsky-Korsakov went on to explain the origins of his symphonic suite, Scheherazade. ‘In the middle of the winter , engrossed as I was in my work on Prince Igor and other things, I conceived the idea of writing an orchestral composition on the subject of certain episodes from Scheherazade, as well as an overture on the themes of the obikhod.' (The second of these was to become the Easter Festival Overture, the obikhod being a collection of canticles used in the Russian Orthodox Church.) Both of these works were completed in the summer of 1888. For Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov has again left a detailed description of the programme he had in mind for it.
‘The programme I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade', he explained, ‘consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four episodes of my suite: the sea and Sinbad's ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalender, the Prince and the Princess, the Bagdad Festival, and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it. The unifying thread consisted of the brief introductions to the first, second and fourth movements and the intermezzo in movement three, written for violin solo and delineating Scheherazade herself as telling her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan.' The stern Sultan in question, Shakriar, was the one who, believing that no woman could be trusted to remain faithful to her husband, had all his wives put to death immediately after spending their first night with him until, that is, he encountered Scheherazade who told him tantalizing stories for one thousand and one nights, thereby forestalling her execution.
Having put all these thoughts in his readers' minds, Rimsky-Korsakov then went on to warn them not to assume that any repeated musical motif is intended to refer to the same character, idea or situation each time it appears. On the contrary, these musical ideas were used purely, he asserted, for symphonic development. In conclusion he claimed that all he had desired was ‘that the hearer, if he [or she] liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements'.
In his introduction to My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov's son, Andrey, noted that the three ‘influences or inspirations' which pursued his father throughout his career were ‘folksong, the Orient, and the sea' and suggested that he never got very far from any of them. ‘He turned everything in his life to artistic account: his early life at sea (reflected in Sadko and Scheherazade), his trips to the Crimea, his summer vacations, when he noted down folk and bird-songs' and ‘he was always seduced by the picturesque and the exotic.' These exotic and picturesque elements might not have played a great part in his original piano music but they certainly do in these transcriptions of three of his most colourful orchestral scores.
© Peter Avis, July 2007
Recorded at Teatro Säo Luiz, Lisbon, Portugal - 30th September, 1st & 2nd October 2006
Engineered by Julia Thomas
Post-Production at Finesplice, UK
Photographs of Artur Pizarro and Vita Panomariovaite by Sven Arnstein
Photo of Rimsky-Korsakov c.1895 courtesy AKG Images