It was Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s older brother, Voin, who first put ideas of travel, ships and the sea into the would-be composer’s head. The young Nikolay had never set foot aboard a boat but Voin’s evocative letters home from the Far East, where he was stationed in the Imperial Russian Navy, proved more than sufficient. Nikolay’s career path looked set even from his childhood bedroom, where he learned nautical terms, rigged-up model ships and practiced tying knots, his mind full of the adventure and romance of seafaring. In 1856, he enrolled as a naval cadet and completed six years of training.
During that time another passion nudged its way into Rimsky’s heart: music. Barely a year into his studies at the naval academy, the young Nikolay saw his first opera. Soon he heard symphonies by Beethoven and Mendelssohn and encountered a piece by his senior Mikhail Glinka, Jota Aragonesa. Even before he embarked on a three-year voyage around the world aboard a clipper, Rimsky knew he wanted to be a composer, not a seaman. Afterwards, having sailed into some of the great ports of the world, he returned home happy never to leave Russia again – the only journeys Rimsky wanted to make were musical.
Rimsky’s family wealth meant he could embark upon a musical career without too much difficulty, however disapproving his relatives. First, he took piano lessons from Theodore Canille, which afforded him introductions to the most important Russian composers of the day: Mily Balakirev, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky. Balakirev furnished Rimsky with a rudimentary education in theory and harmony, but the youngster had to put in the hours privately to refine his skills (particularly in the field of counterpoint).
Thus Rimsky slipped into the milieu of those composers and became associated with the push for Russian nationalism in music. But as the youngest of the posse that became known as The Mighty Handful, Rimsky was acutely aware of nationalism’s limitations as well as its opportunities, and his travels had attuned his ears to the cosmopolitan. However much he cultivated a distinctly Russian sound in his music (most obviously in his Russian Easter Festival Overture), Rimsky became convinced of the need to bring the nationalist movement, as it existed, to a point of closure. In so doing, he would form a link between his own generation and the Russian composers of the early twentieth century who would reinvent the country’s national musical vocabulary once more (among them Igor Stravinsky, one of his pupils).
Rimsky believed wholeheartedly in the validity of impregnating his scores with indigenous Russian ingredients; his argument was for doing so within a broader range of methods, resources and musical expression. The composer collected and edited folksongs and had a knack for underlining their ‘Russianness’ even in music that felt more outward looking and international. In 1889, he visited the Universal Exhibition in Paris and heard performances of two of the works recorded here, both recently composed: the Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio Espagnol. Soon afterwards, Rimsky heard the same pieces performed in Brussels, noting that both the Parisians and Belgians responded far better to his bright, decorative, exotic and fantastical Russian music than to the doleful images of his country presented in music by Balakirev and Cui.
That was connected to the composer’s new view of orchestration – his desire to develop ‘a respectable virtuosity’ in the orchestra whose transparency would serve its own sense of beauty, as well as the specific idiosyncrasies of the various instruments (a stint as Inspector of Naval Bands had allowed the composer to become intimately familiar with what most instruments could do). Rimsky made those observations following the completion of the three orchestral works included here, which he came to view as the culmination of a particular phase in his compositional life – one that prepared him for the next, as a composer of fifteen operas.
To a greater or lesser degree, Rimsky the fantasist and storyteller is present in these three works, all written between 1887 and 1888. As part of his self-motivated musical education, Rimsky had taken violin lessons from Piotr Krasnokutsky, a process that induced his Fantasia on Russian Themes for violin and orchestra. Continuing the geographical theme, Rimsky planned another piece based on the same semi-concertante design, this one using Spanish tunes.
Over time, that work became the Capriccio Espagnol – no longer overtly cast for violin soloist and orchestra but containing a lot for the concertmaster to do nonetheless. It was written in the summer of 1887 and first performed on 31 October of that year by the orchestra Rimsky had co-founded with the express purpose of promoting Russian music: the Russian Symphony of St Petersburg. The composer himself conducted the piece, and the audience loved it.
Later in life, as his reputation for orchestration grew (and after his 1913 treatise on the subject was published), Rimsky sought to make a distinction between his handling of the orchestra and his treatment of actual musical material. It was his choice of melodies and rhythms, his realization of distinctive musical patterns, his alternation of distinctive orchestral colors and his seasoning of the musical journey with breathing instrumental solos that had given the Capriccio its appeal, said Rimsky, ‘not its coating.’
Those themes are taken from the folk music of the Spanish countryside, starting with the wake-up call ‘Alborada’ originally rendered on bagpipes (referenced by Rimsky’s steady drone) and hand drum (his tambourines). 'Variazioni' presents five variations on a horn melody passed through an orchestra apparently shrouded by night, before morning breaks again with another version of ‘Alborada’, this time in a different key and with the instrumental roles reversed.
In ‘Scena e canto gitano’ (‘Scene and Gypsy song’) the snare drum lingers from the previous movement, preparing a fanfare that heralds a series of exotic instrumental character cameos induced by a seductive violin that foreshadows the world of Scheherazade. In his fifth movement, Rimsky uses the most famous Spanish dance of all. Despite the presence of encouraging castanets, his ‘Fandango Asturiano’ starts out measured but gradually throws off its northern inhibitions, each section of the orchestra taking its turn to lead the dance.
Debussy and Ravel had both been present at the Paris performance of the Capriccio in 1889, a time when Russian art was associated more with the exotic, the fantastical and the quasi-oriental than with the mournful and melancholic. The piece had a huge influence on those two composers (themselves obsessed with Spain) who saw Russia, via the fast-forming Trans Siberian Railway, as gateway to the east.
The Arab world had long interested Rimsky, too. When writing his symphonic suite Antar in 1868, he had borrowed a French compendium of Arab melodies from the composer Alexander Borodin. One of the few journeys the composer did make after his navy days was to Bakhchisaray in the Crimea, a town alive with coffee houses and Arabic music. Some years later, he sought to recreate the experience with three days in Constantinople (modern Istanbul). It was the scent of these cities, and possibly the sensual world he encountered when finishing Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, that prompted Rimsky’s fertile imagination to deliver Scheherazade.
The Arabian Nights was in wide circulation in Russia at the time, in a French translation by Antoine Galland that indulged the Francophile passion for all things Arabic. It’s from that volume that Rimsky likely took his scenario, which is based on the story of the 1001 Nights. The composer paraphrased the story on the front page of the score:
“Convinced of the treachery and faithlessness of the female sex, the Sultan Shahriar swore to execute each of his wives following their wedding night. However, Sultana Scheherazade managed to save her own life. She bewitched the Sultan with stories over the course of a thousand and one nights. Day after day, the Sultan delayed her execution out of curiosity, until he finally abandoned his murderous plan. Scheherazade told him of wondrous events, interweaving her stories with poetry and songs.’
The composition of Scheherazade immediately followed that of the Capriccio, and the score was first performed on 3 November 1888, with Rimsky again conducting the Russian Symphony. It would become Rimsky’s most famous creation – a byword for orchestral color, fantasy, and sweeping, proto-cinematic storytelling even if the composer initially sought to downplay its narrative content. It was his colleague Anatol Liadov who persuaded Rimsky to replace his funtionary movement titles (simple indications of tempo) with more evocative, descriptive ones. Either way, Rimsky was reluctant to present his work as an out-and-out tone poem, describing it as a ‘symphonic suite’ and distancing himself from the specifics of the story of the Sultana over time. He came to describe it as ‘a kaleidoscope of fairytale images and patterns with an Oriental character.’
The composer’s use of the word ‘patterns’, which he also deployed in direct reference to the Capriccio, is indicative of his belief in the absolute musical value of the score irrespective of its story. He knew that his use of repeating and interlocking themes and his alternate waves of heady power and restful repose would make for a musical experience just as hypnotically alluring as any image of a seductive princess.
Rimsky’s movement titles probably convey all the specifics he wanted, but he did confirm that his violin solo was intended to represent the Sultana Scheherazade, readying herself between each of her tales, radiating composure and beauty (with help from the harp). The broad brass theme of the first movement surely represents the Sultan. Prince Kalendar’s theme is heard on a bassoon (and then the entire orchestra); the young prince is depicted by violins and the princess a solo clarinet (their story is of love, estrangement and reunification). The Festival in Baghdad combines the events of all three movements, with the Sultan’s heavy brass theme moving to strings and turning tender – a suggestion of his clemency. As for the Arabic qualities in those themes, they are really only present in character and detail: little turns and melismas; tunes built of small intervals and with long tails. They relate to each other just enough to suggest that while we’re being told of different events, a single person is doing the telling.
Rimsky’s orchestral trilogy was completed by a piece that seems, even more than its companions, to look backwards as well as forwards. In his Russian Easter Festival Overture, the composer set out to capture the ‘transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday morning,’ as experienced in a Russian church. Not just any church, but ‘a cathedral thronged with people from every walk of life, and with several priests conducting the service.’
This musical procession from darkness to light smells deliciously of Old Russia. It uses material from the Obikhod (the Russian Orthodox Church’s catalogue of chants), uses bells and contains overt references to four-part ecclesiastical harmony. It is surely orchestrated in the manner of Glinka – the first Russian composer whose music Rimsky had heard, and the forefather of The Mighty Handful. In common with the two other works recorded, it employs a series of miniature cadenzas for the violin. It was first performed on 15 December 1888, not long after it had been composed.
The Overture emerges from the gloom in an unusual 5-in-a-bar gait, with a presentation of the theme ‘Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered.’ Against a glittering curtain of flutes, harps and two violins, a cello then intones the chant ‘An Angel cried out.’ Finally, the chant ‘Christ is risen from the dead’ appears amid the jubilant trumpets of the overture’s final paragraph, not before the two preceding chant themes have been discussed and presented in tantalizingly contrasting orchestrations.
For Rimsky, the overture was about more than the resurrection of Christ. The composer’s childhood home in Tikhvin, Novgorod Province, was surrounded by monasteries (it was also a long way from sea, which doubtless fuelled the young composer’s naval fantasies). On Easter morning, Rimsky would have heard bells ringing out from miles around while experiencing the continuing onset of spring in a landscape hitherto frozen for almost half a year. The Russian Easter Festival Overture could be a manifesto for the composer’s belief in an authentic Russian music, but one facing a bright new dawn.
– Andrew Mellor