Composer, Conductor, Educator. One of the most celebrated of Russian composers, and the youngest member of the nationalist group "The Five". His symphonic suite "Scheherazade" (1888), based on the "Arabian Nights", is a cherished warhorse of the classical repertory. Rimsky-Korsakov was an outstanding orchestrator and in such works as "Capriccio Espagnol" (1887) and the "Russian Easter Overture" (1888) he brought dazzling new colors to the modern orchestra. Most of his 15 operas were derived from Russian history and folklore, and have rich elements of fantasy. They include "The Snow Maiden" (1882), "Sadko" (1898), "Tsar Saltan" (1900), and "The Golden Cockerel" (premiered in 1909). Three of his best-known pieces come from these operas - "Dance of the Tumblers" from "The Snow Maiden", "Song of India" from "Sadko" and "The Flight of the Bumblebee" from "Tsar Saltan". Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, near Novgorod. He showed early musical talent and composed his first pieces at age 10, but family tradition steered him towards a career in the Imperial Navy. From 1856 to 1862 he attended the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg while devoting his free time to piano and cello lessons. In 1861 he was introduced to Mily Balakirev, the leader of a group of young composers whose aim was to create music of a truly Russian character. Its other prominent members were Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, and Cesar Cui, and with the addition of Rimsky-Korsakov they later became known as "The Five". Balakirev gave him some rudimentary instruction and urged the 17 year-old naval cadet to continue work on a symphony he had started. In 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov was assigned as a midshipman for a three-year naval cruise, during which he visited ports in Western Europe, the United States, and Brazil. He completed his First Symphony aboard ship. After returning to St. Petersburg in 1865, he revised the symphony under the supervision of Balakirev, who conducted its premiere that same year. The imaginative scoring of the orchestral tone poem "Sadko" (1867), the Symphony No. 2 ("Antar", 1869), and his first opera, "The Maid of Pskov" (1873) established him as a major new talent. In 1871 Rimsky-Korsakov was invited to join the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory as a professor of composition, orchestration and harmony, even though he had no formal training in any of these subjects. For three years he studied intensively at night to keep one step ahead of his pupils, and by 1873 was confident enough to resign his Navy commission. In time he became a dedicated believer in academic training, much to the chagrin of his "Five" colleagues, who held fast to Balakirev's "do-it-yourself" ethic. They criticized his Third Symphony (1873) and String Quartet in F (1875) as being too preoccupied with form, and Rimsky-Korsakov later admitted struggling with his new technical skills. Editing two folk song collections (1874) and an edition of Glinka helped bring him back to his musical roots and he arrived at his mature style with the opera "May Night" (1879). A highly disciplined workaholic, he used his civilian post as Inspector of Naval Bands (1873 to 1884) to expand his knowledge of wind instruments; he took over leadership of St. Petersburg's Free Music School during Balakirev's hiatus (1874 to 1881), and assisted Balakirev in leading the Imperial Chapel Choir (1883 to 1894). From 1886 to 1896 he was principal conductor of Mitrofan Belyayev's Russian Symphony Concerts, which promoted new Russian music; "Scheherazade" was among the works he wrote for this series. After hearing Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungen" in 1889 he directed most of his creative energies to the stage and completed 12 more operas, among them "Mlada" (1890), "Christmas Eve" (1895), "Mozart and Salieri" (1897), "Kaschey the Deathless" (1902), and "The Invisible City of Kitezh" (1907). Other opuses include a Piano Concerto (1884), the tone poem "Dubinushka" (1905), orchestral suites from his operas, and dozens of art songs, chamber and piano pieces. A lifelong political liberal, Rimsky-Korsakov strongly protested police repression of students during the 1905 Russian Revolution; as a consequence he was dismissed from the Conservatory and his music was temporarily banned. An international outcry ensued and he was restored to his posts, though a heart condition forced him to retire in 1906. This episode motivated him to write his last and most popular opera, "The Golden Cockerel", a satire of Czarist rule disguised as a folk tale. Completed in 1907, it was not performed in Russia until after his death and then in a heavily censored version. Rimsky-Korsakov also edited and revised compositions that Mussorgsky and Borodin had left unfinished when they died. He succeeded in his objective of rescuing their music from obscurity, though the liberties he took with the material for "practical" purposes are still controversial. (For many years Mussorgsky's opera "Boris Godunov" was heard in Rimsky-Korsakov's 1908 edition, and opera companies still perform Borodin's "Prince Igor" in the version completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov in 1890). In his later years he became a cultural conservative in spite of himself, determined to maintain the academic traditions he had helped instill at the Conservatory; at the same time he was anxious not to impede musical progress, however much it perplexed or disturbed him. This ambivalence was best expressed in a remark to Serge Diaghilev during a 1907 trip to Paris. After the impresario had dragged him to hear recent operas by Debussy and Richard Strauss, he exclaimed, "Do not make me listen to all these horrors, or I shall end up liking them!" Overall his impact on Russian music was enormous. Not only was he crucial in establishing professional standards for that field, he taught two generations of students who achieved fame as composers: Arensky, Liadov, Tcherepnin, Glazunov, Lysenko, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Gretchaninov, Miaskovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. His influence extended to France through the music of Debussy, Ravel and Dukas, to Italy through Respighi (another student of his), and beyond his death through Shostakovich (who received instruction from Rimsky-Korsakov's son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg). He wrote an autobiography, "Chronicle of My Life in Music" (1909), and his "Principles of Orchestration" (completed by Steinberg and published in 1922) is a standard text. Since 1944 the St. Petersburg Conservatory has been named for him.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards