Program Eleven: The Spectacular Legacy of Rimsky-Korsakov
About the Program
Although a founding member of the Moguchaya Kuchka (Mighty Five), a group of composers committed to creating authentic Russian music freed from the constraints of European influence, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was as stimulated by his extensive travels abroad as by his native Russia. His compositions were influenced by the operas of Gaetano Donizetti, Mikhail Glinka, and Giacomo Meyerbeer as well as by the instrumental works of J. S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Robert Schumann. His omnivorous approach in turn guided other composers. The works featured in this program—in an array of styles ranging from neoclassicism in Paris to Italian nationalism and Russian Jewish music—are inspired to varying degrees by Rimsky-Korsakov, and many were composed by his students.
As a 20-year-old composer, Igor Stravinsky met Rimsky-Korsakov in Heidelberg in 1902. The encounter coincided with one of the latter’s most prolific periods and benefited both composers. At the time, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that he was “trying to do something [compositionally] that is new for me.” Despite his avowed nationalist sentiments, he was attempting to step beyond the narrow aesthetics of the Kuchka and embrace more experimental possibilities in his music. The fruits of this evolution would become evident in his last opera, The Golden Cockerel. No doubt Stravinsky was inspired by the elder composer’s musical ideas, as he eagerly set to work on a number of projects under his tutelage. Rimsky-Korsakov gave Stravinsky private composition lessons until his death in 1908. Stravinsky was determined to compose a fitting tribute to his mentor. He wrote Funeral Song, which premiered in January 1909 but was lost until 2015. That work in turn pointed to his ballet Firebird, which Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in June 1910. Firebird was an immediate success and catapulted Stravinsky to stardom. The ballet borrows a common theme from some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas in depicting evil and magical themes with chromaticism, while good and human elements are represented using diatonic harmonies or melodies derived from folk songs. The striking 1928 piano transcription that we hear today of three sections of Firebird by Italian composer Guido Agosti distills the drama of the original.
While still finishing his studies in violin and viola at the conservatory in Bologna, another Italian composer, Ottorino Respighi, was temporarily employed as principal violist with the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg and studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov. Although they spent only a brief period together, Respighi said that the few lessons he took significantly influenced his approach to orchestration. The rewards of this study became evident when Respighi completed his graduation project—Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue—under Rimsky-Korsakov’s guidance. He would later become known for his Italian nationalist leanings and his so-called Roman Trilogy of symphonic tone poems, Le fontane di Roma, I pini di Roma, and Feste Romana. His earlier Five Pieces for violin and piano were completed in 1906 following his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. The fourth piece, a berceuse, is lyrical and soaring, a contrast to the migratory abstract patterns and chromatic flourishes that characterize the berceuse in Stravinsky’s Firebird. A variant on the lullaby, the berceuse was defined by the solo piano works of Chopin and Liszt. Opening with a dazzling violin cadenza, the fifth and final piece, Humoresque, is perhaps the most substantial of the set. Its main theme is reminiscent of a Slavic folk melody.
Much has been made of the impression that hearing Rimsky-Korsakov conduct two concerts of Russian music at the 1889 World’s Fair had on Claude Debussy. But nearly a decade earlier, the young composer had been employed for three summers as an accompanist by Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s patron, and was immersed for those months in the work of the Russian composer. It is likely that Debussy’s “Symphony” in B minor, which is actually a piano duet (perhaps meant to be played with von Meck), was composed during the first of those summers. It is unclear if Debussy ever planned to complete the piece or score it for orchestra, though the title page of the manuscript that was discovered in 1925 and published in 1933 lists three additional movements, the second of which has also been found.
Sometimes known as the “Jewish Glinka,” Mikhail Gnesin was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov’s at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Despite his success, he and other Jewish musicians faced discrimination from tsarist and Soviet authorities opposed to the Jewish nationalist music movement, even as Russian Jewish performers received national and international recognition. Gnesin’s Requiem for piano quintet reveals his expert use of Romantic melodic contours and also hints at the Futurist aesthetics that were beginning to take hold in Italy, France, and Russia. Gnesin became a central figure in the growth of Jewish music in Russia and founded the Society for Russian Folk Music, along with Lazare Saminsky—who, like Gnesin, studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Rimsky-Korsakov. In addition to composition, he pursued mathematics and philosophy and conducted ethnomusicological research on religious chant from communities of Transcaucasian Jews. Saminsky eventually emigrated to the United States and in 1924 became the music director at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. The violin’s haunting, lilting theme in his “Hebrew Rhapsody” is illustrative of Saminsky’s expert knowledge of Jewish folk and liturgical music.
Subtitled “Harp,” Sergei Prokofiev’s Prelude from Ten Pieces is an étude styled as a fantasia, with free-flowing and playful arpeggiations. Prokofiev began his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1904 and took orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov for one year. In 1905 Rimsky-Korsakov was fired from the conservatory for siding with the student protesters during the Russian Revolution. Although he was eventually reinstated to his post after a public outcry, there is little evidence to suggest that the older composer mentored Prokofiev. Nonetheless, Prokofiev acknowledged that Rimsky-Korsakov’s works, particularly his later operas, served as a model for some of his own compositions.
Alexander Tcherepnin had a haphazard formal musical training, but his education was enriched by Rimsky-Korsakov’s frequent visits to his home. Rimsky-Korsakov taught composition to Tcherepnin’s father, Nikolai, and the younger Tcherepnin also showed a penchant for composition, writing several piano pieces by the age of 14. He is best known for his Bagatelles, which were published in 1922 in Paris. Tcherepnin’s cultured childhood hinted at his cosmopolitan adulthood; the composer lived in Georgia, France, China, and Japan before moving to Chicago in 1949 to teach composition at DePaul University.
Finally, Nikolai Myaskovsky was a contemporary of Prokofiev’s at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He studied composition first with a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov’s and then with the composer himself. In his adult life, Myaskovsky struggled with Soviet authorities who accused him of formalism and attempted to stifle his creative output. His Second Cello Sonata, written during the late 1940s, was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who described him as a “real Russian intellectual.” With lush Romantic harmonies, Myaskovsky’s retrospective compositional style harks back to Rimsky-Korsakov and the heyday of Russian nationalist composition.
—Sophie A. Lewis, Princeton University