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Although he was counted amongst Mily Balakirev's 'Mighty Handful' (which dedicated itself to pursuing a more purely Russian art music, as opposed to the Austro-German musical dominance of the era), both works on this recording show how Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was able to draw influences from beyond Russia into his own unique compositional approach: the scenes from his opera The Invisible City of Kitezh take on a dramatic, Wagnerian influence, whilst Sheherazade is suffused with orientalism as it conjures images from the Thousand and One Nights.
The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Yuri Temirkanov bring their natural insight with this repertoire to the fore in these live performances, continuing their series of acclaimed releases with Signum.
Had I ever studied at all, had I possessed a fraction more knowledge than I actually did, it would have been obvious to me that I could not and should not accept the proffered appointment, that it was foolish and dishonest of me to become a professor…I was a dilettante and knew nothing.
The older, wiser Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov recalling his acceptance of the professorship of composition and orchestration at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. Once installed, the position proved a steep learning curve as the young composer found himself having to learn of the most basic musical conventions and traditional musical training from his own pupils—‘having undeservedly become a Conservatory professor, I soon became one of its best students’.
By the time he was offered the position, the 27-year-old Rimsky-Korsakov was already celebrated as a most innovative orchestrator, by virtue of the brilliance of his early works in the genre, Sadko and Antar. However, his natural talent had received no real thorough-going compositional guidance in his early years, save the odd tutor and the rather bizarre methods employed by his single mentor of note, the esteemed composer Mily Balakirev. Despite musical leanings as a child, Nikolai was sent to Naval Cadet College in St Petersburg, where, his studies aside, he was able to attend opera and concerts in the big city. In 1862 he was called to Naval duty and toured for the next three years as midshipman on the military clipper Almaz, visiting London and Rio de Janeiro among other places, whilst studying Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration, buying scores (and even a piano on which to play them) and devouring the classics of literature. However, after a time the exoticism of his travels and extra-musical activities led him to somewhat neglect his musical studies.
Returning home in 1865, music again loomed large in Rimsky-Korsakov’s life, as did a cluster of composers soon to be dubbed (not entirely seriously, it seems) as ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘The Five’. Under Balakirev’s often despotic leadership the group, which included César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Alexander Borodin as well as Rimsky-Korsakov, dedicated itself to the progress of a more purely Russian art music, and was determined to challenge the Austro-German musical dominance of the time. Their starting point was naturally Mikhail Glinka whose opera, A Life for the Tzar had effectively kick-started a native Russian school of classical music. ‘The Mighty Handful’ took the music of Glinka and Alexander Dargomyzhsky as their starting point, employing aspects of Slavic and Russian folksong and folklore characters as well as inflections from the music of the Orthodox Church. Avowedly anti-conservatoire in their stance, it was a blow to the group when Rimsky-Korsakov accepted his professorship—a move which Balakirev, in particular, found difficult to stomach.
Nevertheless, the young professor immersed himself in academia, largely setting aside his own creative urges for a handful of years in the 1870s and 80s in order to gain the tools that would see him emerge a composer secure enough in his technique to more effectively communicate his ideas. These ‘dry’ years were also products of a lack of self-confidence, no doubt due to his late conversion to academia, and he was ever-after obsessed with revising his own works. He was also of immense value in revising, completing and editing the works of other composers, and was often of invaluable help to the reputations of his former colleagues in ‘The Mighty Handful’ in this fashion. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Borodin’s Prince Igor are just two of the unfinished operas that Rimsky-Korsakov prepared as editions—and unusually for his time, he archived the original materials from which he worked, so that they might be inspected or re-interpreted in the future. Other projects which fed the composer’s musical imagination in the 1870s included editing Glinka’s operas, orchestrating Dargomyzhsky’s The Stone Guest, and transcribing and harmonizing two collections of folksong—this latter task being of particular use in the understanding of Russian folk idioms. His knowledge of the orchestral palette was further enhanced in 1873, when the navy created a post for him as their band inspector. The position afforded him the freedom to delve deeper into the sound-world of wind instruments, a good many of which he learned to play, and an experience which can be heard to wonderful effect in the composer’s output.
‘The Mighty Handful’ were ever suspicious of the conservatoire system, but also of the status quo of European musical life at the time, and not least the all-pervasive Richard Wagner. The year after Rimsky-Korsakov completed Scheherazade, he was able to hear a work which had been absorbing him for some time—Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The great Wagnerian Carl Muck conducted the cycle in St Petersburg during the 1888–89 operatic season and Rimsky-Korsakov sat through the rehearsals and saw his view of music-drama radically altered. From the early 1890s until his death in 1908 he produced a dozen operas which range from the historical epic, through legend, fairytale and folk treatments to fascinating experiments in the genre. His masterful penultimate opera, The Legend of the invisible city of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya fits into almost all of these categories at some point or other.
The rather nonsensical plot centres on the myth of the miracle which rescued the city of Great Kitezh from invasion by the Mongol hordes, whereby the city is rescued by being submerged in great fountains of water, brought about through the fervent belief of its non-violent population, divine intervention and the restorative power of nature. The music recalls Wagner at points, Rimsky-Korsakov summoning up memories of the ‘Forest Murmurs’ from Siegfried in the opera’s Prelude, the ‘Paean to the wilderness’, a depiction of the woodland and its multifarious attractions and dangers. The ‘Wedding procession and Tartar invasion’ is no less evocative of nuptial bliss, darkened by the clouds of the incoming invasion, while the ‘Battle of Kershenets’ fizzes with the promise of battle, building up into a finale of titanic proportions, presaging the battle march in Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. Hints of Wagner aside, Rimsky-Korsakov’s super-sophisticated ear for tone-colour and effect are all his own invention. The symphonic description of the dense forest, its flora, fauna and climate recalls Rachmaninov’s recollection of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral wizardry:
When there is a snowstorm, the flakes seem to dance and drift from the woodwinds and the soundholes of the violins; when the sun is high all instruments shine with an almost fiery glare; when there is water the waves ripple and splash audibly through the orchestra, and this effect is not achieved by the comparatively cheap means of a harp glissando; the sound is cool and glassy when he describes a calm winter’s night with a glittering starlit sky. He was a great master of orchestral sound painting…who handled the secrets of the orchestra in so masterly a fashion, down to the smallest detail[.]
By the time Rimsky-Korsakov came to compose his symphonic suite, Scheherazade, Op 35 in the winter of 1878–88, he had been co-opted into the circle of Mitrofan Belyayev, the son of a wealthy timber merchant who, after achieving great success in his father’s firm, turned his mind and money to his main desire—music, and the future of Russian music in particular. Belyayev’s contribution to the music of his homeland is an extraordinary labour of love, resolute industry and high-end production. In 1884, he instituted the Glinka Prize, awarded annually to a Russian composer, following this up in 1885 with the Russian Symphony Concerts series and, more important still, he was granted permission to establish his own publishing house in Leipzig, thus securing a form of international copyright for Russian composers. Registered as M.P. Belaieff, the company would publish scores of the most important Russian compositions, from Glinka through ‘The Mighty Handful’ to Scriabin and beyond, in luxurious editions. The house continued to do so after Belyayev’s death until the Soviets appropriated it after the revolution. This vital catalogue passed over to Edition Peters of Leipzig in 1971. Rimsky-Korsakov’s three most popular orchestral compositions were early and most worthy beneficiaries of Belyayev’s publishing largesse: the so-called ‘Russian Easter Festival’ Overture, Capriccio espagnol and, the most widely known of all his works, Scheherazade.
Scheherazade is suffused in orientalism, as Rimsky-Korsakov perceived it, and not only the Russian variety. The composer’s experience of travelling great distances by sea in a navy of the 19th century undoubtedly informed the exotic nature of much of his music. The model for Scheherazade is certainly far flung, emanating from orally transmitted stories from the folklore of the Middle East, Asia and North Africa over many centuries, and eventually notated by Arabic scholars in numerous collections of varying sizes. Known in English as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ or ‘Arabian Nights’, the stories all emerge from a single over-riding construct whereupon a Persian potentate, Sultan Shahryar, discovers that his brother’s wife, and then his own spouse, have been unfaithful. In his horror and grief, the Sultan assumes that all wives will be the same and so vows to marry a succession of virgins who will be executed the morning after nuptial rites are fulfilled. Soon the Sultan’s Grand Vizier runs out of virgins and is aghast, but accepting, when his daughter offers her services. Scheherazade avoids the morning beheading by telling the Sultan a tale, but not finishing it. And in the succeeding nights she continues in a similar manner, either not ending, or only just beginning a fascinating, kaleidoscope of tales which range over a bewildering array of topics, from myth and medicine to adventure and erotica. The common factor, as in all effective serial drama, is that the Sultan retires to bed wanting more. And Scheherazade keeps her head.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s response to this extraordinary creation is to produce his own kaleidoscope of grand invention and swirling, ecstatic storytelling. Originally entitling the four movements Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale, the composer was persuaded to add descriptive titles, but withdrew them because for him the piece was essentially a symphonic work which evoked oriental and fairytale images and character. Writing in his marvellous autobiography, ‘My Musical Life’, he maintains that these titles were to ‘direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path along which my own fancy has travelled’. Despite this, the movements have inherited titles: ‘The sea and Sinbad’s ship’; ‘The legend of the Kalendar Prince’; ‘The young Prince and the young Princess’; and ‘Festival at Baghdad’. It seems clear from the work that the stark, strong opening motif represents the angry, sorrowful Sultan, while Scheherazade’s thread is the beautiful, sinuous solo violin telling its tales with fervour and abandon. Both ‘characters’ are evident, in one form or another throughout the work, until the high violin at the finale seems to calm the Sultan’s anger as his ire sinks beneath her eloquence and charm.
Setting out in his youth to promote the advancement of a purely Russian musical art, Rimsky-Korsakov’s devotion to constant learning, and the clarity instilled through revising, editing and arranging both his own musical thoughts, as well as those of other composers, ensured that his influence extended far beyond his homeland, spreading forward into the European avant-garde of the following generation—to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and beyond.
M Ross © 2013