One of “The Five,” a group of 19th-century composers in Russia, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was well known for his development of a distinctly Russian style of classical music. His musical language heavily incorporated Russian folk songs and fairy tales, while repudiating traditional Western compositional influences in favor of creating a body of nationalistic repertoire. Arguably one of his finest operas, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1905) brings together two traditional Russian legends. In this melding of the story of St. Fevroniya and of the city of Kitezh, Rimsky-Korsakov artfully demonstrates his mission of amplifying Russian musical tradition and folklore.
Even though Rimsky-Korsakov studied piano in his childhood, he initially followed his brother’s steps in choosing a naval career. After graduating from naval school, Rimsky-Korsakov went to sea for two and a half years during which time he composed his first symphony. In 1871, he became professor of composition and orchestration at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, despite never having taken a formal course in music theory. It is there that he came to be widely seen as the architect of a truly Russian compositional style. Whether through his brilliant mastery of orchestration, his deeply personal harmonic language—at once diatonic and chromatic—his thorough embrace of profoundly Russian subjects in his operas, his teaching of an entire new generation of composers (Stravinsky and Prokofiev amongst them) or through his tireless work on editing and completing compositions of his peers (Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is a prime example)—no other composer has contributed as much to the establishment, and ultimately popularity, of the unmistakable, authentic Russian style in classical music.
Hear why Rimsky-Korsakov is considered a master of orchestration in our recording of Suite from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.
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Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov