Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai Andreevich


Born Mar. 6 (18), 1844, in Tikhvin; died June 8 (21), 1908, at Liubensk, his estate, near Luga (present-day Pskov Oblast). Russian composer, teacher, director, public figure, and author of works on music.

Rimsky-Korsakov came from the nobility. After graduating from the Naval Cadet School in St. Petersburg in 1862, he sailed to Europe and to North and South America on the clipper ship Almaz. From 1859 to 1860 he took lessons with the pianist F. Kanillé. In 1861 he became a member of the Russian Five. Under the guidance of M. A. Balakirev, who greatly influenced his artistic work, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Symphony No. 1 (1862-65; revised edition, 1874). During the 1860’s, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote about 20 romances for voice; many symphonic works, including the symphonic poem Sadko (1867; final version, 1892) and the Symphony No. 2 (Antar, 1868; later referred to as a suite; final version, 1897); and the opera The Maid of Pskov, based on L. A. Mei’s drama (1872; final version, 1894).

During the 1870’s, Rimsky-Korsakov considerably expanded his activities, serving as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1871, an inspector of bands for the Naval Administration (1873–84), director of the Free School of Music (1874–81), and assistant director of the Court Chapel (1883-94). In 1882 he became the head of the Beliaev circle. He conducted operatic and symphonic performances.

During these years the direction of his work was, in many respects, determined by his deep ties with the progressive intellectual and artistic currents of the 1860’s, which inspired his lively interest in Russian folklore, especially its earliest period. Rimsky-Korsakov compiled the collection One Hundred Russian Folk Songs (1876, published in 1877) and harmonized the Russian songs collected by T. I. Filippov (Forty Songs, published in 1882). His passion for the beauty and poetry of folk customs was reflected in the opera May Night (after N. V. Gogol, 1878) and especially in The Snow Maiden (after A. N. Ostrovskii, 1881), one of his most inspired and poetic compositions, as well as in the later operas Mlada(1890) and Christmas Eve (after Gogol, 1895). Rimsky-Korsakov wrote most of his symphonic works during the 1880’s, including Legend (1880), the Sinfonietta on Russian Themes (1885), the Spanish Capriccio (1887), the Scheherezade suite (1888), and the Russian Easter Festival overture (1888).

In the second half of the 1890’s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s work became extraordinarily intense and diverse. After completing the operatic by Una (folk epic) Sadko (1896), in which he created a colorful contrast between epic scenes of Novgorod life and fantastic underwater scenes, Rimsky-Korsakov concentrated on man’s inner world. His striving for deeper lyric expressiveness is revealed in his romances for voice (1897–98) and in the operas Mozart and Salieri (1897, based on A. S. Pushkin’s text) and the Boyarina Vera Sheloga (the prologue to The Maid of Pskov, 1898). The opera The Tsar’s Bride (1898, after Mei), an intensely expressive drama based on a bygone era, most fully reveals the composer’s aspiration to greater lyricism. With its understated, conventional theatricality and stylized elements reminiscent of an illustrated broadside, the opera The Tale of the Tsar Saltan (1900, based on Pushkin’s poem) was close to the new tendencies in 20th-century art. The spirit of the times was given an original twist in the majestic, patriotic opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia (1904), which posed lofty moral and philosophical problems. An acutely contemporary sociopolitical orientation marked two fairy-tale operas: Kashchei the Immortal (1901), with its idea of liberation from despotic oppression, and The Golden Cockerel (1907, after Pushkin), a merciless satire on tsarist autocracy.

Although it was profoundly original, Rimsky-Korsakov’s work developed classical traditions. He was close to M. I. Glinka in his harmonious perception of the world, his subtle artistry, his perfect mastery, and his firm reliance on folk tradition. The most characteristic features of his creativity are revealed in works associated with fairy tales, folk fantasy, the poetry of the Russian countryside, and colorful pictures of the life of the people. These themes revealed his remarkable pictorial and representational gift, as well as the freshness and special purity of his sincere, warm, and somewhat contemplative lyricism. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style was strikingly national. He used authentic folk themes in his works and integrated folk-song intonations in his own melodies. He made many innovations in harmony and instrumentation, significantly expanding and enriching their coloristic possibilities. His harmonies and orchestral timbre were distinguished by color, brilliance, and a wealth of nuances.

Rimsky-Korsakov worked chiefly in opera. His 15 operas are unusually diverse in dramaturgical, compositional, and stylistic executions. The composer’s interest in folk art genres explains the prevailing epic tendency in his operas. The bylina (folk epic), tale, and legend inspired his work, providing themes and ideas and helping him to understand and to convey the world view and ideals of the people and their faith in the triumph of good and justice. Although Rimsky-Korsakov regarded singing as the foundation of operatic expression, he assigned the orchestra a tremendous role in his operas. It acts as an important or even as the principal means of conveying the musical dramatic development. Often, the composer wrote independent symphonic pictures for the orchestra—for example, “The Blue Sea,” written as an introduction to the opera Sadko, and the entr’actes “Three Wonders” and “The Battle of Kerzhenets,” from The Tale of the Tsar Saltan and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic compositions include genre works that continue the traditions of Glinka and develop folk themes (Fantasia on Serbian Themes and Spanish Capriccio), as well as program compositions with a primarily pictorial or fairy-tale content (Sadko and Antar), which were typical of the Russian Five. Most of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic works were based on the principle of contrasting independent, fully developed images. This explains his predilection for the overture and the suite.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s works are among the most brilliant achievements in the history of Russian culture. He influenced Russian and foreign music not only through his compositions but also through his selfless editorial work, which made possible the publication of many Russian masterpieces and had an enormous impact on the music world. Among the works edited by Rimsky-Korsakov were Dargomyzhskii’s The Stone Guest, Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. With M. A. Balakirev and A. K. Liadov, he prepared Glinka’s operatic scores for publication.

Rimsky-Korsakov was extraordinarily important as a teacher. As the head of a large school, he trained more than 200 students, including A. K. Glazunov, A. K. Liadov, M. M. Ippolitov-Ivanov, A. S. Arenskii, N. Ia. Miaskovskii, N. V. Lysenko, A. A. Spendiarov, M. A. Balanchivadze, and J. Vĭtols. Some of his students played important roles in the development of the professional music of the peoples of the USSR. Rimsky-Korsakov’s textbooks on harmony and orchestration were, to some extent, a summary of his teaching. His autobiography, My Musical Life (1909), which covers one of the most important periods in the development of Russian music, is a valuable historical document.

In 1944 a museum was opened in Tikhvin in the house where the composer was born (the Rimsky-Korsakov Museum House).


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-50. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946–70. (Publication in progress.)


Rimskii-Korsakov, A. N. N. A. Rimskii-Korsakov: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo, fases. 1-5. Moscow, 1933-46.
Asaf’ev, B. (Igor’ Glebov). N. A. Rimskii-Korsakov (1844-1944). Moscow-Leningrad, 1944.
Asaf’ev, B. (Igor’ Glebov). Simfonicheskie etiudy. Leningrad, 1970.
Iankovskii, M. Rimskii Korsakov i revoliutsiia 1905 goda. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Rimskii-Korsakov: Issledovaniia, Materialy, Pis’ma, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1953–54. (Musical legacy.)
Gnesin, M. F. Mysli i vospominaniia o N. A. Rimskom-Korsakove. Moscow, 1956.
Iastrebtsev, V. V. N. A. Rimskii-Korsakov: Vospominaniia, vols. 1-2. Leningrad, 1959–60.
Danilevich, L. V. Poslednie opery N. A. Rimskogo-Korsakova. Moscow, 1961.
Solovtsov, A. Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo N. A. Rimskogo-Korsakova, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1969.
Kunin, I. N. A. Rimskii-Korsakov: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo v vospominaniiakh, pis’makh i kriticheskikh otzyvakh. Leningrad, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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