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ClassicsOnline Home » RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844- 1908)
Symphony No.1 in E Minor, Op. 1
Symphony No.2, Op. 9, (Symphonic Suite), Antar
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended a naval career, following the example of his elder brother. He showed some musical ability even as a very small child, but at the age of 14 he entered the Naval Cadet College in St. Petersburg in pursuit of a more immediately attractive ambition. The city, in any case, offered musical opportunities. He continued piano lessons, but, more important than this, he was able to enjoy the opera and attend his first concerts.
It was in 1861, the year before he completed his course at the Naval College, that Rimsky-Korsakov met Balakirev, a musician who was to become an important influence on him, as he was on the young army officers Mussorgsky and Cui, who already formed part of his circle, later joined by Borodin. The meeting had a far-reaching effect on Rimsky-Korsakov's career, although in 1862 he set sail as a midshipman on a cruise that was to keep him away from Russia for the next two and a half years.
On his return in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov fell again under the influence of Balakirev. On shore there was more time for music and the encouragement he needed for a serious application to music that resulted in compositions in which he showed his early ability as an orchestrator and his deftness in the use of Russian themes, a gift that Balakirev did much to encourage as part of his campaign to create a truly Russian form of music. Nevertheless, as Rimsky-Korsakov himself soon realised, Balakirev lacked the necessary technique of a composer, justifying Anton Rubinstein's taunts of amateurism. In spite of his own perceived deficiencies in this respect, in 1871 he took a position as professor of instrumentation and composition at St. Petersburg Conservatory and the following year he resigned his commission in the navy, to become a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands, a position created for him through personal and family influence.
Rimsky-Korsakov's subsequent career was a distinguished one. Understanding the need for a sure command of compositional techniques, harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, he set to work to make good these defects in his own musical formation with remarkable success. This led him, as the only real professional of the nationalist group dominated by Balakirev, to take on the task of completing and often orchestrating works left unfinished by other composers of the new Russian school. As early as 1869 Dargomizhsky had left him the task of completing the opera The Stone Guest. Twenty years later he was to perform similar tasks for the music of Mussorgsky and for Borodin, both of whom had left much undone at the time of their deaths. Relations with Balakirev were not always easy and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had become increasingly intolerant of the former's obligatory and dogmatic interference in the work of others, was to become associated with Belyayev and his schemes for the publication of new Russian music, a connection that Balakirev could only see as disloyalty. There were other influences on his composition, particularly with his first hearing of Wagner's Ring in 1889 and consequent renewed attention to opera, after a brief period of depression and silence, the result of illness and death in his family.
Rimsky-Korsakov was involved in the disturbances of 1905, when he sided with the Conservatory students, joining with some colleagues in a public demand for political reform, an action that brought his dismissal from the institution, to which he was able to return when his pupil and friend Glazunov became director the following year. He died in 1908.
Cesar Cui took the opportunity of the appearance of Rimsky-Korsakov's first symphony, to declare it the first Russian symphony, a deliberate snub to Rubinstein, whose earlier symphonies had won a very much wider international audience by this time. Rimsky-Korsakov had undertaken the composition of a symphony while at the Cadet School and was encouraged to continue by Balakirev, whom he first met in November 1861. The following winter and spring he tackled the Scherzo and Finale. The slow movement was eventually written on board ship off Gravesend, where his naval duties had taken him. For this movement he made use of a folk-song Pro Tatarski Polon (On the Tatar Captivity), a theme provided by Balakirev. The Trio of the Scherzo movement was added in the autumn of 1865 and the symphony, then in its original key of E flat minor, was performed under Balakirev at one of the concerts of the Free Music School in St. Petersburg, an institution established largely in opposition to Rubinstein's professional, and therefore foreign, Conservatory. Twenty years later, in the spring of 1884, Rimsky-Korsakov revised and re-orchestrated the work, transposing it into the more manageable key of E minor. The symphony opens with a slow introduction, with the main theme of the following Allegro making partial use of a Russian theme. The slow movement proclaims its folk-song origin, a contrast with the following Scherzo. Although subjected to later revision and rewriting, it is clear that the seventeen-year-old midshipman boasted a remarkable natural talent, justifying the early enthusiasm of Balakirev, if not the jibes against Rubinstein of the critic Cui.
Rimsky-Korsakov later prefered the title Symphonic Suite for what had at first been his Second Symphony, Antar. The first and fourth movements were written in the winter of 1867-68 and the rest of the work was completed during the summer. The composer took as his subject a story by the pseudonymous Baron Brambeus, Osip Ivanovich Senkovsky.
The first movement depicts the desert of Sham and the ruins of Palmyra. Here Antar has sought solitude and a refuge from those who have returned evil for good, expressing his hatred for humanity that has betrayed him. Antar himself is represented by a recurrent theme that appears in each of the four movements and first introduced by the violas. In the desert a graceful gazelle appears and Antar is tempted to pursue it. At this moment a terrible noise is heard and a great bird is seen, threatening the gazelle. Antar seizes his lance and the bird is put to flight, while the gazelle makes off. He falls asleep and dreams that he is in a great palace, attended by slaves and entertained by beautiful music. This is the palace of the Queen of Palmyra, Gul-Nazar, who was herself the gazelle that he has rescued. She offers him the greatest joys of life. Antar wakens to find himself again in the ruins of Palmyra. The second movement offers Antar the joy of vengeance, as GOI-Nazar had promised. The third movement brings the joy of power, and the fourth the joy of love. Here Antar is again the ruins of Palmyra and now he tastes the joy of love in the arms of GOI-Nazar, a delight that brings death. The music identifies clearly enough Antar himself and GOI-Nazar and makes use of a collection of Algerian Arab melodies collected by Salvador Daniel, a copy of which was in Borodin's possession. The principal Arab subject introduced by the cor anglais in the last movement was provided by Dargomizhsky from another collection. Antar was first performed at a Russian Musical Society concert in March 1869 under the direction of Balakirev and was extensively revised by the composer in 1897.
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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2