Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov

1844–1908

Romantic

Inspired by folk tales and a huge imagination, Rimsky-Korsakov used the orchestra to create dazzling musical kaleidoscopes.

When he was a boy, he developed a passion for the sea. He read about it in books – he loved books! – and his older brothers were in the Russian Navy, so they told him tales of their adventures.

He joined the Navy too: it was a family tradition. His whole life was a mix of musical and military. When he was 18 he met a composer called Balakirev. They talked all about Russian music and Rimsky-Korsakov was excited. He showed Balakirev his First Symphony – he’d written most of it while away at sea. Although it was a bit clumsy in places, Balakirev could smell the raw talent and encouraged him.

Balakirev and his friends believed that Russia should develop its own musical style. They said that it should use Russian folksong and exotic harmonies, and that composers shouldn’t follow the ideas and training of Western composers such as Beethoven and Brahms. Others disagreed. It was a difficult time. Rimsky-Korsakov joined the group and it became known as ‘The Five’ or ‘The Mighty Handful’.

Then in 1871 he became a professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory and realized just how much musical theory he didn’t know. So, as well as teaching others, he taught himself. As he caught up, he applied this new training to his compositions. He made friends with Tchaikovsky, who encouraged him. But his friends from The Five were cross: what was he doing, betraying them by studying Western theory? He got very confused for a while, wondering where he belonged. But eventually he found a middle-ground, where exotic sounds partnered solid structure, and he wrote better music.

He became an inspector of military bands and used the job to learn about each instrument – how it was made and how it was played. It made him even more expert at ‘orchestration’ (writing or arranging music for an orchestra).

With his mixture of learning and talent, Rimsky-Korsakov eventually told stories through sparkling music, where different sounds burst through the orchestra like party-poppers!

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful sounds…

The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Op. 57: Flight of the Bumblebee

From a big opera, this clever little piece has found fame all on its own. In just over a minute, it shows the power of music to describe something. Can you imagine the bumblebee buzzing around?

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572693

Scheherazade, Op. 35: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

The solo violin in this exotic, brightly coloured music represents the beautiful Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights) who tells exotic stories. The first movement conjures up the stormy sea and Sinbad’s ship.

Performers: Maria Larionoff, violin; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572693

The Little Oat Stick

In 1905 students started demonstrating in Russia: they wanted politics to change. Rimsky-Korsakov was a teacher but he supported them. He heard this little folk tune during a demonstration in Moscow, and made his own rousing, colourful version for orchestra.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572788

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 On which set of stories is Scheherazade based?

a. Indian Fairy Tales
b. The Arabian Nights
c. Grimm’s Fairy Tales

 What was Rimsky-Korsakov really good at?

a. Fugues
b. Singing
c. Orchestration

 What was Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife called?

a. Clara
b. Nadezhda
c. Natalia

 Which solo instrument stars in Scheherazade?

a. Violin
b. Flute
c. Cello

 What was the name of the composer who led ‘The Five’?

a. Balakirev
b. Tchaikovsky
c. Shostakovich


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. We talk about colours in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music to describe its many sounds. But he did actually have a form of ‘synesthesia’, which meant that his brain associated particular keys (C major, D minor etc.) with particular colours.
  2. Rimsky-Korsakov married and had seven children: his wife, Nadezhda, was a capable musician herself and a great support for her husband, much as Clara had been for Robert Schumann.
  3. Rimsky-Korsakov taught many composers, including Stravinsky.
  4. Rimsky-Korsakov loved literature – when he was young, he was more interested in books than music. Most of his best works describe stories.
  5. Extremely critical of himself, Rimsky-Korsakov revised most of the things he wrote – sometimes to change only tiny things.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Music


Scheherazade, Op. 35

Exotic and imaginative, this is one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous works. He described it himself as a ‘kaleidoscope of fairytale images and designs of oriental character’. It is based on The Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights), though it describes scenes and characters rather than telling a specific story. Scheherazade is the beautiful woman who fascinates a Persian king with the stories she tells each night. After 1,001 nights, she runs out of stories: but the king has fallen in love with her, and instead of killing her as he had planned at the beginning, he makes her his queen. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, she is represented by the solo violin. Right at the beginning (track 1, 0.00-0.20), we hear a sinister theme thundering in from the brass instruments: this represents the king who is planning to kill her. Then she starts telling her stories… (listen to the violin’s beautiful beginning at 0.40). The stories she tells involve characters like Sinbad the Sailor: you can hear him on the sea in the first movement (track 1). Listen at 1.27 to how the lower string instruments (cellos and double basses) make the waves roll in. In the tender ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ (track 3), can you spot the clarinet at 1.05? In track 4, the trombones suggest danger at 3.27… Sinbad’s ship is in trouble. It gets really exciting at 7.17: Sinbad’s ship is crashing against the rocks! Listen to the whole work to hear how Rimsky-Korsakov uses the sounds of the orchestra, thinks up bewitching melodies, and creates music of amazing energy and colour.

Performers: Maria Larionoff, violin; Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572693


Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34

Spain is the focus here for another exciting, exotic-sounding work. It is based on Spanish folk melodies, and Rimsky-Korsakov throws the spotlight around the orchestra, getting different sounds to come out. An alborada is a Spanish song, poem or dance that celebrates the rising of the sun. Track 1 definitely opens in celebratory mood! The full orchestra has great fun here. Can you hear the little castanets in the middle of the percussion making it sound very Spanish? It features the clarinet with a solo, in between the orchestra’s thumping sections. Track 2 calms down, with a noble theme from the French horns introduced and treated like a toy to play with by the rest of the orchestra. Track 3 brings back the alborada from track 1, a bit higher in pitch so it sounds more exciting, and with the violin playing the clarinet’s solo. After a huge drum roll and brass fanfare, different solo instruments get a chance to shine in track 4 (violin at 0.34–1.10, flute at 1.19-1.45, a gentle cymbal at 1.47, clarinet at 1.51–2.01, oboe at 2.01–2.12, harp at 2.12–2.36) – listen to the harp’s sparkling ‘glissando’ at 2.26, where the harpist whizzes up and down the strings really fast. The final track, based on the fandango dance, is even more alive and joyful. You can really hear the cackling castanets here – listen at 0.04. Festive and exciting, the whole work is a sparkling Spanish spectacle!

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572788


The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Suite

In the featured tracks at the top of this page, you can hear the famous ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, which comes from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. This is a suite (a collection) of other orchestral music from the opera – Rimsky-Korsakov called the suite ‘Musical Pictures’, because each movement describes a scene from the opera. In the story, Tsar Saltan marries the youngest of three sisters and she has a son, Guidon. But her sisters are jealous, and when Saltan has gone off to war they tell him that his wife has given birth to a monster. So he orders mother and son to be put in a barrel and sent to a desert island. There, Guidon becomes a prince. There are three wonders on the island: a magic squirrel that eats nuts of gold and sings, 33 magic knights who emerge sometimes from the sea, and the Swan-Princess. Saltan hears about these incredible things and travels to the island to see them: once there, he is amazed to find his beloved wife and his son, now a prince. The first movement (track 1) describes him travelling off to war; the second (track 2) is about the wife and son in their barrel on the sea (pretty uncomfortable!); and the third (track 3) is about the three wonders on the island. Listen to how Rimsky-Korsakov describes the barrel on the sea – the rolling waves underneath it in the strings, and uncomfortable ‘pings’ from pizzicato violins, flute and glockenspiel.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572693


Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 32

Rimsky-Korsakov completed his third and final symphony in 1868 but revised it completely in 1886. There is no scene or story: it is the music itself that is the focus. By this point, he had studied hard how each instrument is made and played: it meant he could get the best out of the whole orchestra. Listen and see if you can spot when the sound of a particular instrument rises briefly above all the others – such as, in track 1, the trumpets at 2.46, or the cellos at 2.54, or the clarinet at 3.24. It makes the music interesting, giving it variety. Rimsky-Korsakov was known for being especially good at ‘orchestration’ – the art of writing for the orchestra. He also brought great energy to his compositions: have a listen to the final minute of the last movement, where the brass instruments (trombones, tuba, trumpets and horns) make a meaty sound as it builds to its ending.

Performers: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.573581


The Snow Maiden: Suite

The Snow Maiden is the daughter of Spring and Winter. As long as she lives without love, she is safe from her father’s old enemy: the sun. It is all fine… until Mizgir comes along and falls in love with her. She can’t resist him – and as soon as she says she loves him back, a big ray of sunshine appears: she melts. This is the basic story of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden – it is based on a Russian folk tale. Here is some of its music for orchestra, where the composer uses some Russian folk tunes. Listen to track 2 – can you hear the birds chirping? After a rhythmic procession (track 3), the final ‘Dance of the Clowns’ contains the kind of glitter and gusto that is typical of Rimsky-Korsakov’s writing for orchestra.

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572787


Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36

At 0.15, with the lovely mix of plucked and bowed strings, this work sets off in a more soulful style than Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol or Scheherazade. The whole thing is based on liturgical (church) themes – from the Russian Orthodox Church. At 4.27 there are shimmering strings. They are joined by a harp at 4.40 – and things soon become more lively. At 4.47 there are some great syncopated rhythms (where the heavy beats fall in unexpected places) to get us in the mood for more of a party – listen to the full orchestra growing in excitement at 5.27 and stabbing at those rhythms like a giant foot. A lovely melody emerges at 6.23, but it’s interrupted by a trumpet fanfare. There is so much variety: listen to the whole thing, and see whether you like the quiet or the loud bits best!

Performers: Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz

Taken from Naxos 8.572788