Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Composer of Scheherazade and several great operas, Rimsky-Korsakov was also a great teacher, one of the most important influences in 19th-century Russian music.

Vital Statistics
March 18, 1844 in Tikhvin, east of St. Petersburg
June 21, 1908 in Lyubensk, south of St. Petersburg
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
Pianist/ composer Anton Rubinstein founds the first music conservatory in Russia, in St. Petersburg (1862); four years later, his brother Nikolai co-founds the Moscow Conservatory. At Anton's urging, composers are given a bureaucratic rank, recognizing them as professionals in Russia and qualifying them for pensions.
Biographical Outline
  • Early life: Rimsky-Korsakov’s family was poor but aristocratic. His mother and grandmother came of peasant stock and he learns his love of Russian folk and religious music from them. But, though he is talented at music, his c hildhood dream is to follow his elder brother into the navy.
  • Naval officer, 1862-1865: After training as a cadet, Rimsky-Korsakov is commissioned to a Russian naval clipper and sets off for a three-year cruise. He buys music scores at every port of call, and visits Rio de Janeiro, New York, London.
  • Amateur composer, 1865-1870: Rimsky-Korsakov’s desk job on returning home gives him plenty of free time for music. He studies composition with Mily Balakirev, leader of the “Mighty Handful” or “Mighty Five,” a group of amateur composers who aim at putting the Russian people’s spirit into music. Rimsky’s fellows include the army officer Modest Mussorgsky and the chemistry professor Alexander Borodin.
  • Music professor, 1871-1880: Rimsky is appointed professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The directors, impressed by his early work, don’t realize how little formal training he actually has. Rimsky races through the textbooks to keep one lesson ahead of his pupils. Eventually he becomes a master of his craft, and writes textbooks himself.
  • Revisionist, 1881-1887: The premiere of the opera The Snow Maiden (1882) leads to a fallow period, during which Rimsky revises many of his earlier works. After Mussorgsky dies young, his one-time roommate takes on the job of editing and finishing his incomplete compositions. He does the same for Borodin's Prince Igor, and finishes it after the composer's death.
  • A burst of creativity, 1887-1888: In almost one swoop, Rimsky composes his three greatest orchestral works -- musical pictures of exotic lands, from the Arabia of the symphonic poem Scheherazade to the equally exotic (for a Russian) Spain in the Capriccio Espagnol. And the Russian Easter Overture explores his Orthodox religious heritage.
  • Rejuvenation, 1888-1904: A complete production of Richard Wagner's Nibelung's Ring gives Rimsky a jolt of creative energy. He studies Wagner's scores and sits down to write operas. Personal tragedy strikes when two of his children die and his wife suffers a serious illness. However, Rimsky's association with the Private Opera, run by the industrialist Savva Mamontov, assures his operas first-class productions, which popularize a string of them, including world premieres of Sadko (1897), Mozart and Salieri (1898), The Tsar's Bride (1899), The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900), and Kaschey the Immortal (1902).
  • The political liberal, 1905: In the wake of the abortive revolution of that year, Rimsky-Korsakov forcefully supports the students’ cause in a strike against the Conservatory. The authorities fire him (temporarily, as it turns out) as a professor. 300 students leave the Conservatory with him in a show of support.
  • Last Years 1907-1908: In May, 1907, Rimsky conducts the impresario Serge Diaghilev's Concerts Russe, marking a breakthrough of Russian music in western Europe. The next year he dies on his estate, of angina.
Fun Facts
  • His aristocratic surname: An ancestor of the composer’s had traveled to Rome, and was so proud of this that he named his family “the Roman Korsakovs” to distinguish them from all the other Korsakovs. In Russian, “Roman” is “Rimsky.”
  • His distinguished appearance: Rimsky was a great teacher, and he looked like one, too. He was tall, with a high, scholarly forehead – on which he often kept an extra pair of his thick, blue-tinted, wire-rimmed glasses – a long face, and a full beard which made his face look even longer.
  • The great teacher: From the 1870s on, Rimsky taught a whole line of Russian composers. The most famous are Alexander Glazunov, one of the first, and Igor Stravinsky, one of the last. The year after Rimsky's death, Stravinsky debuted in Paris with The Firebird, which shows his mastery of his teacher’s style, and surely would have pleased the old man greatly had he lived to hear it.
  • His distinctive handwriting: The notes in Rimsky-Korsakov’s manuscript scores all slant evenly to the right. He’s been called the only composer to write music entirely in italics.
  • Not in the catalog: The most famous Rimsky-Korsakov piece that you won't see on a standard list of his works is that fast-buzzing encore favorite, The Flight of the Bumblebee. It’s actually an interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
  • Prefiguring Amadeus: Among Rimsky’s operas is a one-act item called Mozart and Salieri, based on a verse drama by Alexander Pushkin. It did a lot to publicize the legend that Salieri poisoned Mozart.
  • On the map: The Rimsky-Korsakov Archipelago, in the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok, is named for the composer’s brother Voin, a noted naval hydrographer.
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Explore the Music

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most brilliant and colorful orchestrators in the history of classical music. Though steeped in Russian tradition – both folk and liturgical music – his style is lighter and brighter than that of his fellow “Fivers.” He’s best-known for his operas, a large number of orchestral suites drawn from them, and his symphonic poems.

Change of heart: While Rimsky started out as a dedicated member of the Mighty Handful group, his style changed when he mastered textbook harmony and he turned away from their radical experiments. Eventually, in 1894, he had a sad break with his old mentor Balakirev. Some of his later works incorporate styles and forms that the Five generally disparaged, like Wagnerian music drama. Even his interest in Russian folksong ended up different from theirs, because Rimsky was interested in the music's connection to folk culture, especially pantheistic rites.

Rimsky was criticized for his editions of his colleagues’ music, especially the polishing and prettying up of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, but his aim was to make practical performing scores to help publicize them, and it was in his version that Boris became part of the international repertoire.

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