Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin in Russia. There he
first heard the simple folk songs that left an indelible
impression. His early ambitions lay not in music, however, but in
a burning desire to become a naval officer. He joined the Corps of
Naval Cadets in 1856 and while at sea composed a symphony,
completed in 1865 with the encouragement of the composer Balakirev.
The work showed great promise, especially in its orchestration;
subsequently he was offered the professorship of composition at
the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He was 27 years old.
Although unqualified for the position, he accepted and
immediately became one of the most assiduous pupils, secretly
studying harmony and counterpoint. Shortly afterwards he married
Nadezhda Purgold, also a composer, and at that time a musician far
superior to her husband.
During his self-imposed programme of study he produced
compositions that were dry and academic; but in 1882 his opera
The snow maiden revealed a new, more personal voice with its
clever intertwining of fantasy and comedy. Surprisingly, the next
few years yielded no new compositions. Finally 1 887 ushered in an
era of fresh creativity, inaugurated with the Gapriccio
espagnol. This fantastically virtuosic work was interrupted at
its rehearsals by applause from the orchestra itself, and was
encored in full at its premiere. There followed the Russian
Easter festival overture and then the exotic Sheherazade,
derived from the classic tale the Thousand and one nights.
All three works demonstrate Rimsky's mastery of orchestration.
In 1888, Rimsky heard the first performances in Russia of
Wagner's Ring cycle, and was so overwhelmed that he
resolved in future only to write operas. Over the next 20 years he
composed 12, including Christmas Eve, Mozart and Salieri —
based on Pushkin's play — and one of his finest works, Sadko.
A setting of Russian folk legends, this work contains the
famous "Hindu" song and marks the high point of Rimsky's love
affair with the fantastic.
Rimsky's last completed opera, The Golden Cockerel
(1907), based on Pushkin's satire about a bumbling autocracy, was
banned by the Russian censor and remained unperformed during the
composer's lifetime. His gift for lively and colourful
orchestration is as alive in this work as throughout his entire