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Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov


A member of the famous Russian “Mighty Handful,” Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was a passionate advocate of a Russian national music.  With little formal training he rose to become, perhaps, the group’s most esteemed member.  In fact, he was so admired that he was offered a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  This offer was made despite the fact that Rimsky-Korsakov and his colleagues tended to oppose institutionalized music.  Nonetheless, with some trepidation, he accepted the position and went on to train the next generation of great Russian composers.

Military Education

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born into an aristocratic family on March 18, 1844, in Tikhvin, Russia.  At an early age Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrated a talent for music by transposing songs his father sang to the piano.  By the age of five he was receiving piano lessons from a local teacher.

In 1856, at the age of twelve, his parents enrolled him in the Russian Imperial Naval College in St. Petersburg.  It was his to older brother who urged the family to enroll him in this school.  The brother, Voin, was twenty-two years his senior and already a naval officer. While at the college, Rimsky-Korsakov continued piano lessons with the renowned pianist Fyodor Kanille, who, in addition to piano, taught him the rudiments of music theory and composition.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Years at Sea

1861 proved to be a pivotal year in Rimsky-Korsakov’s life, as well as in Russian music.   That year Kanille introduced Rimsky-Korsakov to Mily Balakirev, Caesar Cui, and Modest Musorgsky. It was in making these acquaintances that Rimsky-Korsakov was inspired to focus seriously on music.  Balakirev brought him into his circle of students, who, with the addition of Alexander Borodin were later  known as the “Mighty Handful.” Rimsky-Korsakov showed Balakirev drafts of his first symphony and was encouraged to continue his work on it.  Sadly, he was unable to finish the symphony before he graduated from the naval college in 1862.

Upon his graduation Rimsky-Korsakov was obligated to embark on a three-year deployment in order to become an officer, which meant he could not focus solely on his musical studies. During his years at sea, he kept in touch with Balakirev and sent him updated drafts of his symphony as he completed them.  Sometimes, when time permitted, and as a way to avoid the distractions of his fellow crewmates, whose company he did not care to keep, the diligent Rimsky-Korsakov also studied Hector Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration and at every port purchased new scores to study.

When Rimsky-Korsakov returned to St. Petersburg in 1865, he had with him the completed version of his First Symphony. It was performed by the Free Music School of St. Petersburg under the baton of Balakirev, who was now the school’s director. The premiere of this work on December 31, 1865, was hailed as the first “true” Russian symphony by his boisterous circle of friends (although it is actually Anton Rubinstein’s Symphony op. 40 of 1850 that is considered the first such work).

Professional Recognition

The following years, from 1865 to 1870, were musically productive for Rimsky-Korsakov: his naval shore-duty post only occupied his life for a few hours a day, leaving him ample time to work on his music.  During these first years back in St. Petersburg, he composed a great deal.  Notable pieces from this time are his orchestral works Sadko (1867),  Antar (1868), and the opera The Maid of Pskov (1868-72).  These works were greatly influenced by his friendship with members of “The Mighty Handful.”

He and his colleagues met frequently to critique each other’s works-in-progress and occasionally collaborated on new compositions.  And since the composers that made up his circle of friends had been self-taught, they viewed any sort of academic or learned music tradition with contempt.  They passionately discussed aesthetics and the future of Russian music, for which they advocated a new style that relied on Russian folk music practices.

The public success of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral works in the late 1860s made others consider him the most talented of his circle; moreover, it led to the offer of a professorship, in 1871, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  He was a little hesitant to accept, due in part to his suspicion towards academia, but the main factor was his acknowledged lack of a musical education. In his memoir he wrote:

I was dilettante and knew nothing. This I frankly confess and attest before the world...I was young and self-confident; my self-confidence was encouraged by others and I joined the Conservatory. ...Thus having been undeservedly accepted at the Conservatory as a professor, I soon became one of its best and possibly its very best pupil, judging by the quantity and value of the information it gave me!

With this opportunity, Rimsky-Korsakov set out to improve his abilities and spent the next three years teaching himself the rudiments of composition.  His next orchestral work, Symphony No. 3 (1873) reflects this recently acquired expertise.

Owing to the new-found financial security of his employment at the conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov was ready to settle down and to start a family.  In 1872, he married Nadezhda Nikolayevna Purgold (a pianist and composer) and together they had seven children.  Along with being a stabilizing force in his life, Nadezhda was also a good critic of her husband’s compositions; together they played four-hand arrangements of his pieces, “work-shopping” them in a manner similar to his earlier years with his circle of friends.

Great Works of the Final Years

His duties as a professor did not get in the way of his composing.  He wrote many orchestral works during his tenure, including his best known works Capriccio Espagnol (1887) and Scheherazade (1888). He also wrote fourteen more operas after The Maid of Pskov, including The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900), which is famous for containing the very well known “Flight of the Bumblebee.”  In addition to composition, he authored a pedagogical work on harmony and one on orchestration. His contribution at the conservatory was substantial, as demonstrated by the success of many of his students, who included Alexander Glazunov, Sergei Prokofiev, and Igor Stravinsky.  His years at the conservatory were productive and he continued to work there until the end of his life.

One notable event during his tenure occurred in 1905 when approximately one hundred students were expelled for taking part in the February Revolution.  Rimsky-Korsakov was fired from the conservatory for his support of the students.  This dismissal sparked a chain reaction in which a number of his fellow faculty members also resigned. Ultimately, three hundred more students voluntarily left the conservatory to show solidarity with Rimsky-Korsakov.  By December he was reinstated, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s political controversy continued when his opera The Golden Cockerel (1906-7), upset the state censors with its implied criticism of the monarchy, to the point that the premiere was delayed until 1909, a year after the composer's death.

Toward the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life, he suffered from angina and this affliction was eventually the cause of his death in Lyubensk on June 21, 1908.


Baker, Theodore.  The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians.  8th ed.  Rev. Nicolas Slonimsky.  New York: Schirmer, 1994.

Frolova-Walker, Marina: ‘Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 6 February 2007), <>

Grout, Donald J. and Claude V. Palisca.  A History of Western Music.  5th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 1996.

Schonberg, Harold. The Lives of the Great Composers. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.