From time to time I hear a piece of music, and something about it takes me right back to my discovery of the ‘classical’ music canon, this extraordinary art form that, like the best literature and science, will survive as long as we human beings have an interest in what we have been capable of. The music was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, which I heard on Classic FM. I must have heard the piece fifty times in the last sixty years, but I really listened on this occasion, not just heard it, and that process took me back to 1954 or 1955, when I bought an LP of the work.
It was conducted by the emigre Russian pianist/composer Issay Dobrowen, and it must have been one of the last works he conducted, because he died in 1953. I didn’t know the work, but I knew of Rimsky-Korsakov, and he seemed interesting. You have to remember that there was nothing like Classic FM at that time — FM radio would come twenty years later — and no long piece of music was ever played on what passed for radio then. You could only hear music by sitting down in front of a record-player, though we did have one visit from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra every year. We had a music society at the university, and once a week in term there would be an evening where we all sat around and listened to the latest work that someone had acquired.
I had a small Philips portable record-player, and the LP recording had just arrived in Australia. My first LP, that of Clifford Curzon playing the Grieg Piano Concerto, was the third Decca LP that had been made, so I came to classical music just as it became possible to listen to it without having to get up and change the record every three minutes. I played Sheherazade as soon as I got back to my room. It was a bolt-from-the-blue experience. I played it through again, at once. I found friends, and demanded that they sit with me and hear it. One or two did, and Rimsky-Korsakov became famous in our small group of music-loving students.
It was hard to get anything more of his, but in time another friend found a record in Sydney of the Russian Easter Festival Overture, and we devoured that too, and his Antar Symphony, which was on the same LP. My mother had sung Song of India, from his opera Sadko, and I knew that was his, because my mother had the music. I also knew the The Flight of the Bumblebee, which I had certainly heard on the radio!
What grabbed me, in all his orchestral music, was the rich orchestration, and its clarity. I think that only Ravel is his equal in fitting exactly the right instrument, and the right balance of instruments, to the music. Both orchestrated the music of Mussorgsky, which tells you something. And along with other Russian composers of his time, like the professor of chemistry Borodin (some of whose music he also orchestrated), Rimsky had another career, in his case in the Russian Navy, and he both composed and pursued his naval career for some time.
Sheherazade was one of his last purely orchestral works, and after that he saw himself essentially as an opera composer, and wrote a dozen of them. I’ve not seen one, nor been near one I could have gone to. But his orchestral works are characteristically lovely, spirited and memorable. They include overtures, suites from his operas, tone poems, occasional pieces and three or four symphonies. A lot of them are played, but occasionally. He’s not in the really big league.
He became a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory and thereby a great influence on the next generation of Russian composers, who included Lyadov and Glazunov. His most striking pupil, at least in my mind, was Stravinsky, whose greatest piece of music, again in my mind, was written under the influence of his teacher. It is, of course, The Firebird. Both Sheherazade and The Firebird were written by young men, and I think you can hear Rimsky-Korsakov in The Firebird — especially in the sudden shifts from noise to silence, the wonderful themes, the dramatic climaxes, and always, just the right instruments at just the right time.
Stravinsky never wrote another work that was so clearly a tribute to his teacher, and moved quickly into much less accessible and appealing music. But at least we have The Firebird.