Today is the birthday (1844) of Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков) a Russian composer who was a member of the group of composers known as The Five or The Mighty Handful: a late 19th century group intent on promoting a distinctively Russian style of music. I have covered two other members here:
Rimsky-Korsakov was known among The Five as a master of orchestration. His best-known orchestral compositions—Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and the symphonic suite Scheherazade—are staples of the classical music repertoire, along with suites and excerpts from some of his 15 operas. Scheherazade is an example of his frequent use of folk subjects with magical components. Rimsky-Korsakov believed in developing a nationalistic style of classical music. This style employed Russian traditional lore married to exotic harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements and only reluctantly used traditional Western compositional methods. Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Western musical techniques more after he became professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He undertook a rigorous three-year program of self-education and became a master of Western methods, incorporating them alongside the influences of Mikhail Glinka and fellow members of The Five.
For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy, then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother’s exploits in the navy. This love of the sea probably influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name) and Scheherazade. Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this ability to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg.
Rimsky-Korsakov left a considerable body of original Russian nationalist compositions. He prepared works by The Five for performance, which brought them into the active classical repertoire, and shaped a generation of younger composers and musicians during his decades as a teacher. Rimsky-Korsakov is therefore often considered to be the main architect of what the art music world considers the Russian style of composition. These days I have two problems with Rimsky-Korsakov’s activities in this sphere. On the one hand, his orchestrations of works by other members of The Five, notably Mussorgsky’s, is often considered as meddling these days, and it is sometimes difficult to find the original that Mussorgsky intended under Rimsky-Korsakov’s “improvements.” On the other hand, nationalism in its many forms is toxic to my soul, not least Russian nationalism (although I hate it wherever it lives). I can certainly appreciate the desire on the part of young Russian composers to break away from the mold of what they saw as German or Italian styles of music, but the nationalism of The Five (as noted below) can get a bit too heavy handed for my tastes at times.
Rimsky-Korsakov is sometimes seen as a transitional figure between the generally self-taught members of The Five and the professionally trained composers who became the norm in Russia by the closing years of the 19th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s style greatly influenced two generations of Russian composers, but also non-Russian composers such as Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.
For the sake of brevity I am going to focus on Rimsky-Korsakov’s most popular piece “The Flight of the Bumblebee” which is very frequently played on its own as a bravura solo. Isolating the piece from its operatic context and from its original scoring does it an injustice in my humble opinion. Let’s start with a fairly standard solo version for trumpet, preceded by a worthy pep talk from the soloist.
This is familiar stuff, whatever the solo instrument may be. But Bumblebee is a small, one might say insignificant, part of a large-scale operatic treatment by Rimsky-Korsakov of a Russian folk tale from Pushkin. Pushkin’s original is known in English as The Tale of Tsar Saltan, of His Son the Renowned and Mighty Bogatyr Prince Gvidon Saltanovich, and of the Beautiful Princess-Swan. The première of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera was held in Moscow on 3 November (O.S. 21 October) 1900 at the Solodovnikov Theatre.
Pushkin’s narrative, adapted by Rimsky-Korsakov is as follows:
The tale concerns three sisters whom the tsar spies on. He chooses the youngest as his bride (tsaritsa) because when he overhears them discussing what they would do if the tsar were to marry them, the eldest says she would make a sumptuous feast, the middle sister says she would weave fine cloth, and the youngest says she would bear him a son. When he chooses to marry the youngest, he orders the other two sisters to be his royal cook and weaver. They become jealous of their younger sister, so when the tsar goes off to war and the tsaritsa gives birth to a son, Prince Gvidón, the elder sisters arrange to have the tsaritsa and the child sealed in a barrel and thrown into the sea. The sea takes pity on them and casts them on the shore of a remote island, Buyan. The son, having quickly grown while in the barrel, goes hunting. He ends up saving an enchanted swan from a kite bird.
The swan creates a city for Prince Gvidon to rule, but he is homesick, so the swan turns him into a mosquito to help him. In this guise, he visits Tsar Saltan’s court, where he stings his aunt in the eye and escapes. Back in his realm, the swan gives Gvidon a magical squirrel. But he continues to pine for home, so the swan transforms him again, this time into a fly. In this guise Prince Gvidon visits Saltan’s court again and he stings his older aunt in the eye. The third time, the Prince is transformed into a bumblebee and stings the nose of his grandmother.
In the end, The Prince expresses a desire for a bride instead of his old home, at which point the swan is revealed to be a beautiful princess, whom he marries. He is visited by the tsar, who is overjoyed to find his newly married son and daughter-in-law.
In the opera, “The Flight of the Bumblebee” is a musical interlude in Act 3 between scenes 1 and 2 representing the prince’s initial transformation into a bumblebee and his flight to the ship that will carry him to his homeland. In the opera, the Swan-Bird sings during the first part of the “Flight” but her vocal line is melodically unrelated and so can easily be omitted. Because of this feature and the fact that this section conclusively ends scene 1, it can stand alone. Here is a link to the full opera. I find the heavy-handed nationalism a little hard to stomach, but it is useful to hear “Flight” in its musical context. You’ll find it at 1.27.00. If you rewind to 1.25.00 you’ll hear the lead in, and be able to note the leitmotifs that appear in various places throughout the opera, and which are incorporated in “Flight.”
For my money “Flight” sounds much richer and more fully developed as an orchestral piece than as a solo act. Here it is extracted from the opera:
What do you think?
For Borodin and Mussorgsky I gave full blooded Russian recipes from St Petersburg, so there is no need to alter course with Rimsky-Korsakov. I have chosen pirozhki (Пирожки) for today – a savory or sweet bread-dough encased pastry that can be baked or fried. In keeping with Rimsky-Korsakov’s fame as a master of orchestration I am going to give you a choice of three fillings and instructions for baking or frying. In truth they can be stuffed with all manner of things: meat, cabbage, fish, rice, fruit, etc. Take your pick. You can make a decidedly Russian lunch by serving pirozhki with borshcht.
1 (⅜ oz) package dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk
1 egg, beaten
¼ cup oil or butter
4 ½ cups flour
Filling #1 (Braised Cabbage)
1 large onion, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1 tsp paprika
1 small head cabbage, shredded
10 white mushrooms, diced
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic cloves, finely minced
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
Filling #2 (Beef and Onion)
1 lb ground beef
1 onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 tbsp flour
½ cup stock
3 tbsp sour cream
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
3 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
salt and black pepper
Filling #3 (fruit)
2 ¾ cups peeled, cored and finely diced apples
¼ cup sugar
oil for frying (if necessary)
beaten egg (if necessary)
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it stand 10 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the flour and add the milk, egg, oil and yeast. Combine to make a soft dough. Knead for about 10 minutes.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl cover with a tea towel and let rise until doubled in size (one half hour to one hour).
Sauté the carrots, onion, mushrooms and bell pepper in a large pan with a tablespoon of butter or oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one more minute. Add the cabbage, paprika, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes or until the cabbage is tender. Set aside to cool.
Brown the beef in a dry skillet over high heat, then add the onions and continue to cook the mixture for a few minutes until the onions have softened. Combine the flour with the stock and pour over the meat. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until the sauce has thickened. Remove from the heat.
Add the sour cream, boiled eggs, dill, and salt and pepper to taste and stir thoroughly to mix. Set aside to cool.
Toss the apples and sugar in a mixing bowl with some lemon juice to prevent browning. Set aside.
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F.
Pinch off a golf-ball sized piece of dough, flatten it with your fingers or roll it out in a circle to ⅛” thickness. Place 2 tablespoons of filling in the center and bring the opposite edges of circle together. Pinch the seam securely. (The traditional shape is a plump center with tapering ends). Repeat.
Let the pirozhkis rise on a lightly greased baking tray, seam side down, for 30 minutes.
Brush with beaten egg and bake until golden brown (approx 20 minutes). Serve warm.
Heat your deep fryer to 360°F.
Roll out dough circles as for baked pirozhki and fill them in the same way, making sure the seam is tight and no filling is in the seam. Deep fry them in batches immediately until they are golden (that is, do not let them rise). Drain on wire racks and serve warm.