Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Portrait of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer and a member of the group of composers known as “The Five”. He was born on 18th March 1844 in Tikhvin, Russia and died on 21st June 1908 in Liubensk, Russia aged 64.

Major Works

“Capriccio Espagnol” (Spanish Capriccio) (1887) 
“Sheherazade” 
(1888)
“Easter Festival Overture” (1888)

Biography Timeline

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born on 18th March1844 at Tikhvin, near Novgorod in Russia. His father was Andrei Petrovich Rimsky-Korsakov, originally illegitimate but later ennobled, he rose to serve in the Interior Ministry of the Russian Empire, as Vice-Governor of Novgorod. His mother was Sofya Vasilievna Rimskaya-Korsakova, his father’s second wife. She was the illegitimate daughter of the wealthy landlord Vasily Fedorovich Skaryatin and a peasant girl.

1850: At six, he takes piano lessons from local teachers although he is not keen.

1856: He prefers literature to music although he has already started composing. His love of the sea means he joins the Imperial Russian Navy and is encouraged by his brother Voin.

1859: With the recommendation of his piano teacher Ulikh he takes further lessons in piano and composition from Kanille who introduces him to new music by Mikhail Glinka and Robert Schumann.

1861: In November, Kanille introduces him to the composer Mily Balakirev who then introduces him to Cesar Cui and Modest Mussorgsky. Balakirev teaches him when he is not at sea and encourages him to compose. Whilst in the navy, Rimsky-Korsakov completes a symphony in E flat minor.

1862: He studies at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St Petersburg takes his final examination in April. Rimsky-Korsakov then sails on the clipper ship “Almaz” later on the year. He purchases musical scores at every port he visits and studies Hector Berlioz’s “Treatise on Instrumentation” while on board. He hears of the death of his father.

1865: Back in St Petersburg in May he is engaged in shore work but loses the urge to compose. Balakirev urges him to continue and conducts the first performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphony in December in St Petersburg.

1867: He completes the orchestral piece “Sadk”, “Overture on Three Russian Themes” and a “Fantasia on Serbian Themes”. The last is given at the Slavonic Congress later in the year. The critic Vladimir Stasov describes Rimsky-Korsakov and his friends as “The Mighty Handful” or “The Five”. The group discuss each other’s music and collaborate on new pieces.

1868: Balakirev asks him to orchestrate a March by Franz Schubert for a concert in May.

1871: Rimsky-Korsakov becomes professor of Practical Composition and Orchestration at the St Petersburg Conservatoire where he later teaches Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky.  He moves into his brother’s former apartment and invites Modest Mussorgsky to be his roommate. Mussorgsky leaves for his job in the civil service at midday meaning Rimsky-Korsakov can use the piano in the afternoons. He completes his opera “Maid of Pskov”. Meanwhile he keeps his naval post and teaches his classes in uniform. He reaches out to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who is teaching in Moscow, for technical help with his teachings. In December he proposes marriage to the pianist Nadezhda Purgold whom he had met at the gatherings of “The Five”.

1872: The couple marry in July with Mussorgsky serving as best man. They would later have seven children. “The Maid of Pskov” is given its premiere.

1873: The navy creates the civilian post of Inspector of Naval Bands and appoint Rimsky-Korsakov. This keeps him on the navy payroll but allows him to resign his commission. He visits naval bands throughout Russia and supervises the bandmasters and their appointments and even their repertoires. He begins to write a textbook on orchestration.  

1874: He starts to revise every piece of music he has ever written before this date. He makes his public debut as a conductor at a charity concert leading his own symphony although the reviews are not favourable. He next works on two folk song collections. Mikhail Glinka’s sister Lyudmila wants her brother’s memory to be revered and pays Rimsky-Korsakov to edit his orchestral scores.

1877: At the suggestion of his wife he sets about working on a new opera “May Night” based on a story by Nikolai Gogol.

1878: “May Night” is finished in November. He then sets to work on his next opera “The Snow Maiden”.

1881: Modest Mussorgsky dies and Rimsky-Korsakov begins revising several of Mussorgsky’s pieces for publication and performance including “Night on Bald Mountain”.

1882: He meets the music patron Mitrofan Belyayev in Moscow.

1883: In March an Imperial Order abolishes the Navy Office of Inspector of Bands and Rimsky-Korsakov is dismissed. He then works worked under Balakirev in the Court Chapel as his deputy until 1894 and studies Russian Orthodox church music. Rimsky-Korsakov is also a regular visitor to the weekly concerts held at Belyayev’s home in St Petersburg. 

1884: Belyayev sets up an annual Glinka Prize.

1885: Belyayev starts his own music publishing firm and publishes works by Borodin, Glazunov, Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov at his own expense. They become known as the Belyayev Circle.

1886: The Russian symphony Concerts begin during the 1886-7 season and he shares conducting duties with Anatoly Lyadov. He conducts Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bald Mountain” at the first concert.

1887: In November Tchaikovsky comes to Saint Petersburg to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts including his First Symphony. Another concert features the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Third Symphony” in its revised version. He composes “Capriccio Espagnol”.

1888: He composes “Scheherazade” and the “Russian Easter Overture”.

1889: In March a travelling group perform Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and Rimsky-Korsakov is impressed with the music and in particular the orchestration. Afterwards he declares he will only write opera in the future. He writes fifteen altogether including “The Tale of the Tsar Saltan” which includes his most famous piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee”.

1890: His wife is seriously ill and one of his sons suffers diphtheria. On top of that he begins to suffer attacks of angina.

1892: He suffers a second creative drought due to depression and a medical condition which is diagnosed as neurasthenia.

1893: Tchaikovsky attends Rimsky-Korsakov’s name day party in May and Rimsky-Korsakov asks him to conduct four concerts of the Russian Musical Society during the following season however his sudden death later in the year prevents this.

1905: Demonstrations break out in the St Petersburg Conservatory as part of the 1905 Revolution with students in the city demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy. Rimsky-Korsakov becomes a member of the committee to deal with the pupils and ideas are put forward the curb them including bringing in the police and even closing the Conservatory entirely. He sides with the students in an open letter against the unwarranted interference by Conservatory leadership and the Russian Musical Society. In a second letter he demands the resignation of the head of the Conservatory and he is consequently dismissed. He continues teaching his students from home and after a student production of his opera “Kashchey the Immortal” a protest in his favour by students takes place. The police are called and his music is banned from public performance. After several members of the Conservatory resign in solidarity he is reinstated in December under the new head, Alexander Glazunov.

1906: He retires from the Conservatory. 

1907: In April he conducts two concerts in Paris, hosted by Sergei Diaghilev featuring the music of the Russian nationalist school. Political controversy erupts over his opera “The Golden Cockerel” with its implied criticism of the Russian monarchy and it doesn’t pass the censor. It wasn’t performed until after his death and then was banned. His illness becomes worse in December and prevents him from working.

1908: His opera “Sadko” is produced at the Paris Opera and “The Snow Maiden” at the Opera Comique in Paris.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov died on 21st June 1908 in Lubensk, Russia. He was buried in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg next to Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky and Stasov. 

Further Information

List of compositions by Rimsky-Korsakov.