Childhood & Early Life
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born on 18 March 1844, in Tikhvin, located 200 km away from Saint Petersburg, into a noble family that traced their roots to the Holy Roman Empire. Formerly known as Korsakov, they later added Rimsky to their surname to celebrate their Roman origin.
Both his parents, Andrei Petrovich Rimsky-Korsakov and Sofya Vasilievna Rimskaya-Korsakova, were born out of wedlock. Although Andrei was granted all privileges of nobility because of his father’s clout, Sofya did not have such luck. She was raised in comfort, but could not inherit her father’s surname.
Nikolai was the younger of his parents’ two children, having an elder brother named Voin Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, twenty-two years his senior. He later became a well-known navigator and explorer and had a strong influence on Nikolai's life.
By the age of six, he started having piano lessons with local teachers. However, at that time, he was more interested in stories than in music. By then, his elder brother had joined the navy, and from him, he loved to hear stories about the sea.
By ten, he had started composing; yet, literature was still his first love. Very soon, from his brother’s stories and his own reading, he developed a poetic love for the seas without ever seeing one.
In 1856, twelve years old Nikolai was enrolled at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. Here, he first started taking violoncello lessons, later shifting to the piano. His brother, now the director of the institute, approved of these lessons, hoping that they would help his brother to overcome his shyness.
From late 1859, he started taking piano lessons with Théodore Canillé, who also taught him the basics of composition. Very soon, he started visiting operas, being highly impressed by Gaetano Donizetti's ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s ‘Robert le Diable’.
Later, he also started visiting orchestral concerts, delighting in harmony and discovering the joys of playing the music of Mikhail Glinka. Over a period of time, he began making his own piano arrangements.
In 1861, Voin Rimsky-Korsakov felt that Nikolai no longer needed music lessons and therefore, cancelled his classes. On Canillé’s suggestion, Nikolai now began to visit him every Sunday on the pretext of having informal discussions on music and playing duets.
Canillé seized the opportunity to introduce his student to varied types of music and also to a group of equally talented but amateur musicians, whose leader was twenty-four years old Mily Balakirev. They would one day form ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’.
In 1862, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov graduated from the Naval Academy. Shortly, he set sail in a clipper ship called Almaz on a long voyage, lasting for two years and eight months. By then, encouraged by Balakirev, he had started working on ‘Symphony in E-flat minor,’ completing its three movements.
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Throughout the long voyage, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov continued to work on his symphony. Traveling around the world, they first reached America at the height of the Civil War, anchoring in New York, Baltimore, Maryland and Washington DC. Since Russia was sympathetic to North America, they were welcomed at each port.
From America they traveled to Brazil, where he was promoted to the post of midshipman. Thereafter, they traveled to Spain and then to France before reaching England, from where he mailed the score to Balakirev. Next, they traveled to Norway, finally reaching their home port at Kronstadt in May 1865.
The voyage fulfilled Rimsky-Korsakov’s long cherished dream of sailing across the sea, of visiting Niagara Falls, Rio de Janeiro and London. It also gave him ample free time to study ‘Treatise on Instrumentation’ by Berlioz, works of Homer, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, thus enriching him.
The long voyage also took its toll, and after two years at the sea, he had stopped composing; the inertia continued even after reaching the shore. Although he had very light duties, he did not involve himself with music until he came in contact with Balakirev in September 1865.
At Balakirev's suggestion, he added a trio to the scherzo of his ‘Symphony in E-flat minor’, also re-orchestrating the entire piece. Its first premiere, held on 31 December 1865 in Saint Petersburg under Balakirev’s direction, was a great success. Its second performance in March 1866 confirmed Rimsky-Korsakov’s growing reputation.
Following the success of the ‘First Symphony’, Rimsky-Korsakov got more involved with what was then known as ‘Balakirev’s Circle’, consisting of César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Balakirev and himself. They discussed music, encouraging each other and critiquing each other’s works. Rimsky-Korsakov listened intently to the discussions, imbibing much from them.
He now devoted himself to composition, completing the symphonic poem ‘Sadko’, ‘Overture on Three Russian Themes’ and ‘Fantasia on Serbian Themes’ by 1867.
In May 1867, Mily Balakirev performed ‘Fantasia’ at a concert given for the Slavonic Congress delegates in Saint Petersburg, unaware that they were actually making history.
While reviewing the concert, music critic Vladimir Stasov proudly declared that Russia also had her “moguchaya kuchka” (mighty little heap) of composers, referring especially to Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Mussorgsky. Very soon, they became famous as ‘The Five’, whose aim was to free Russian music from Western influence.
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A New Phase
In 1868, Rimsky-Korsakov completed his ‘Second Symphony,’ subtitled ‘Antar.’ It was performed for the first time in 1869. While it earned praise from the other members of ‘The Five’, Balakirev approved of it ‘with reservations’. As Rimsky-Korsakov was already eager to become free from Balakirev’s influence, they slowly began to drift apart.
In 1869, he began collaborating with other composers, orchestrating Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s ‘The Stone Guest’. Concurrently, he also started his work on ‘Pskovityanka’ (The Maid of Pskov), his first opera, completing it in 1872.
In 1871, he joined St. Petersburg Conservatory as Professor of Practical Composition and Instrumentation (orchestration), concurrently retaining his position in the navy, taking classes in uniform. Although it paid him generously, he soon realized that he had made a mistake in accepting the offer.
Rimsky-Korsakov, though very famous by then, was a self-taught musician. Having little knowledge in musical theory, he wrote mostly on intuition. He did not even know the names of musical chords or their intervals, never having written a counterpoint or conducted an orchestra.
Aware of his shortcomings, he now began to study music on the advice of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory. Composing very little during this period, he concentrated on his lessons, especially studying counterpoint and the fugue.
Continuing to teach at the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov completed his studies in 1875. Meanwhile in 1873, he was allowed to leave naval service, concurrently being appointed Inspector of Naval Bands, a newly created civilian post.
From 1873 to March 1884, he devoted himself to his new duty, visiting naval bands throughout the country, supervising appointments of bandmasters and inspecting the quality of the instruments. He also wrote separate study programs for the music students with navy fellowship at the Conservatory.
On 2 March 1874, he appeared as a conductor, conducting his ‘Symphony No 3’. Later in the same year, he was appointed Director of the Free Music School in St. Petersburg, a position he held until 1881.
From 1875, he began to revise all the works he had written before 1874. Sometime now, he also began working as Balakirev’s deputy in the Court Chapel, seizing the opportunity to study Russian Orthodox Church music, concurrently teaching at the Chapel and writing textbooks on harmony.
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In spite of various appointments, Rimsky-Korsakov continued to compose different genres of music, writing symphonies, chorals, chamber music, fugues and sonatas. As many of his detractors began to accuse him of surrendering to Western music, he now concentrated on bringing more nationalistic character into his music.
His third opera, ‘May Night’, written in 1878-79, dealt especially in Russian themes. The libretto, written by the composer himself, was based on a story by Nikolai Gogol. In 1879-80, he wrote his symphony orchestra, ‘Fairytale,’ and while doing so, he had ‘May Night’ premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1880.
His next opera, ‘The Snow Maiden’, written in 1880-81, also dealt in Russian themes. This time, the libretto was based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name and the opera premiered in Saint Petersburg on 29 January 1882. The work, which he revised in 1898, remained his favorite work.
From 1881 to 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from some kind of creative paralysis, writing only three pieces of chamber music during this period. To keep himself busy, he now edited Mussorgsky's works and completed Borodin's ‘Prince Igor’.
From 1883, Rimsky-Korsakov became the conductor of concerts at the Court Chapel, serving in that position till 1894. Also, from 1883, he began to visit the weekly meetings, known as the Les Vendredis, held at Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev's home in Saint Petersburg, slowly becoming close to him.
In 1886, he was appointed the chief conductor of the Russian Symphony Concerts, which was hosted by Belyayev, holding the position till 1900. Also, in 1886, he published an orchestral arrangement of Mussorgsky's ‘Night on Bald Mountain’.
‘Night on Bald Mountain’, premiered under his baton in 1886 at the Russian Symphony Concerts, achieved great success, bringing him out of his creative stupor. He now started working once again, producing orchestral works like ‘Capriccio Espagnol’ in 1887 and ‘Scheherazade’ and ‘Russian Easter Festival Overture’ in 1888.
In 1889-90, he completed his fifth opera, ‘Mlada’, holding its premier in 1892. Thereafter, he continued to produce a steady stream of operas, writing 'Christmas Eve' in 1894-95, 'Sadko' in 1895-96, 'Mozart and Salieri' in 1897, and 'The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga' and 'The Tsar's Bride' in 1898.
Continuing to write busily, he produced six more operas before his death in 1908, concurrently producing other genres of music. All along, he continued to teach at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
In 1905, he got involved in a political tangle when he protested police action against the conservatory students, upholding their right to demonstrate. Although it led to his dismissal from his post, he was soon reinstated as the head of the Department of Orchestration, holding the position until his retirement in 1906.
Family & Personal Life
In July 1872, Rimsky-Korsakov married Nadezhda Purgold, a beautiful and strong-willed pianist. Better trained in music than her husband, she gave up her career after marriage, becoming the most demanding critic of his music. She also proofread and arranged his compositions and attended rehearsals, leaving a distinct influence on his work.
The couple had seven children: four sons named Michail Nikolaevich, Vladimir Nikolayevitch, Sviatoslav Nikolayevich and Andrey Nikolayevich, and three daughters named Sofia Nikolayevna, Nadezhda Nikolayevna, and Margarita. Among them Andrey Nikolayevich grew up to be a famous musicologist.
Beginning from the 1890s, Rimsky-Korsakov suffered from angina, which became progressively severe after the 1905 Revolution. He died of it on June 21, 1908, at his Lubensk estate near Luga. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, Saint Petersburg