By August 30, 2018ABC, Books, History, Music, Society

A week ago I found it hard to deal with pain, and went to hospital, which fixed things up pretty well after three days. Those three days included the implosion of the Turnbull Government, and all that followed, about most of which I was quite unaware, and when I did know, cared less. Recovery from the pain episode is continuing, and I decided I would write again about something that has been part of my life since I was about eighteen, Western classical music, and in this instance, the life and music of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.

Why him? Well, not so long ago ABC Classic FM played his ‘Russian Easter Festival Overture’, and at once I was taken back to my early discovery of classical music. I had acquired his ‘Scheherezade’ some time in 1954, and fell under its spell at once. I had the only copy in the university residences, and those students who were interested got to hear it.  My friend Terry, he who planned to have a fishing shack on Lake Macquarie when he retired, acquired the ‘Overture’, and I fell about listening to it as well. As it happens, they are the only two orchestral pieces, plus ‘Capriccio Espagnol’ (all of them written in 1888), he wrote that are concert favourites. Yet he wrote a vast amount more, and he was influential in unusual ways.

The way we 1950s undergraduates learned about classical music was utterly haphazard. Records would come in to the one shop in Armidale that sold them. They cost 37/6 each, which was a lot of money. Because I had £12 a month I could only afford one, or sometimes not even one. I didn’t drink beer, which helped. Later, when I became a sergeant in the CMF, I could earn £3 a day, and my collection grew. What I bought was what was available, so it was quite random. Today we can almost literally hear everything that a given composer ever wrote. I think I have on CD and LP nearly everything that Mozart wrote, and he didn’t ever hear much of it more than once, some of it at all. We are unutterably privileged in this respect.

But you learn. And I learned that the Western canon was dominated by a mighty handful: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. They were the top five. It took me a long time to get into Haydn, but the others were easy enough. Who came next? There were all sorts of contenders. One was Richard Strauss, whose tone poems I got to like early. He said that he recognised that he was not in the top tier but, my goodness, he put himself proudly at the top of the second tier! I would put Rimsky-Korsakov there too.

If you read about Rimsky-Korsakov you learn a lot about the chaotic life of 19thcentury Russia. He was intended for the navy, which was his family’s profession, and he duly entered a naval academy. But he had already shown precocious musical talents, which were not obvious in his family. As a young man he managed to meet most of the eminent composers of his day, and they all encouraged him to develop those talents. But he liked the navy, and prospered in it. Eventually he reached a level of seniority where he could spend a great deal more time writing music. Then what he did was to help others, principally those who were less fortunate than him, or who were ill, or who had died. This help to others was part of Russian musical life, for he was not by any means the only composer to do such things. He is largely responsible for the sound of a lot of Mussorgsky’s music. It is his version of ‘Boris Godunov’ that you hear. And while it is his orchestral music that I love, his principal interest in the later part of his life was opera. I’ve never seen any of the sixteen he wrote, which is a pity. They are much more part of Russian musical life than that of Europe, let alone of Australia. Probably the first music of his I heard was the song ‘Hindustan’, from ‘Sadko’, one of his operas. My mother sang and played it. There was a jazz version called ‘Song of India’, done by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, and I had that as one of my pieces when I led a jazz trio.

He wrote several symphonies, of which the ‘Antar’, his second, is occasionally played. They are instantly recognisable for their orchestral colour, but they are not big, bold and fully realised. The symphony was not really for him, though he worked out how to write them. Rimsky-Korsakov seems to have been pushed and pulled by many different influences, Russian folk-lore, Russian fantasy, exoticism, and of course the sheer mechanics of composition. He wrote a lot, and attempted to write large-scale encyclopaedias that should pull together everything there was to know about music. These ventures were over-ambitious, and they all failed. He held a post as Inspector of Naval Bands, which seems to have been a sinecure to give him an income so that he could compose. But he took that post seriously, and wrote a lot about bands and the use of brass instruments. And for large parts of his life he hardly touched musical composition at all. He was just too busy with other things. Altogether his life story and his musical production make fascinating reading.

His greatest skill lay in orchestration. His ‘Scheherezade’ and ‘Russian Easter Festival Overture’ are quite brilliant in their use of colour. Exactly the right instruments are used, in the right way. So he acquired students who came to learn how to do it. The most obviously influenced was Igor Stravinsky.  Put on Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’ and you can hear how much Rimsky-Korsakov’s style affected the younger man. Of course, Stravinsky was to radically change (and more than once) his musical idiom, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s influence waned, as it would in any serious composer. Three others of his students were Prokofiev, Glazunov and Lyadov. They all show signs of that influence. Who else? While none of them was his student, Ravel (another great orchestrator), Debussy, Dukas and Respighi all learned from him. It is hard to think of another composer who has had such an influence on those who came after, unless you go back to the great five, and that is now because the way we train musicians is built on that canon.

He died in his mid sixties. If you have never heard ‘Scheherezade’ it is time to do so. It is of symphonic scale, but is best seen as four continuing tone poems with common themes. I think it is one of the most ravishing pieces of orchestral music ever written, and that is why its composer gets my vote.




Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Chris Warren says:

    LP’s were certainly out of my budget in the early 1960’s but I did manage to buy a few singles which I still have.

    This was also the era of the Canberra Recorded Music Society out of the Griffin Centre, a lending service, until it collapsed just recently.

    I hope our trolls don’t convert this thread into something it is not?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Yes, I belonged to the Society for years, taping endlessly. The trouble was that eventually the tape technology just wasn’t good enough, and CDs came. Now there’s Spotify… Technology seems to be the definer.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “I hope our trolls don’t convert this thread into something it is not?”

    Sadly you just did, blith.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I have restored a lot of comments that may have been unseen by others because of my absence. My apologies.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, I, too, started my classical music ed in 1954 and some of my classmates could whistle whole operas. And frequently did.

    I was never so gifted but enjoyed it nevertheless.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don, I, too, started my classical music ed in 1954 and some of my classmates could whistle whole operas. And frequently did.

    I was never so gifted but enjoyed it nevertheless.


  • Miked says:

    I got to know Scheherazade as my first classical music piece in the early 40s. It was used as the theme music for the BBC’s radio series “Paul Temple”. Have a listen to:

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    World Record Club? Sorry Chris, but LPs were not ‘that’ expensive. I was able to buy them, and still have all of them.

    Don, I’m not a music critic, but I think other composers may have had a wider influence than Rimsky-Korsakoff. Wagner, obviously, but it would be hard to determine who amongst the famous Russian five was actually the dominant influence. For what’s it worth, I like Scheherezade’, but I prefer Capriccio. It’s fun.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      I certainly wouldn’t have put R-K ahead of Wagner in terms of influence, and didn’t say so. But I guess I thought he has been somewhat undervalued. Wagner too has to be in the top of the second tier. But you raise a general issue that I will think about further: how do we/how should we determine the ‘value’ of composers, notwithstanding our simple liking for a particular work? And I guess that the number of later composers who learned from him/her is one yardstick.

  • Peter E says:

    Thank you, most interesting. It’s a while since I listened to R-K, delightful melodies with flash and colour as I remember it. I did recently hear the Tommy Dorsey piece you mention – trombone perfection. Sorry to learn about your hospital sojourn.

  • MD says:

    Agreed: Scheherezade is wonderful, and thanks for the very interesting account of R-K’s life. We are so lucky to be able now to explore so much of the 2nd tier composers. Lately I found A Scarlatti, I primo omicido, about Cain’s murder of Abel, a beautiful ‘opera’ or maybe oratorio and earlier his father wrote wonderful sonatas. There are so many treasures out there.

  • beththeserf says:

    ‘Ravishing’ is a good description. Don, glad yr out of hospital
    and writing. I’m doing a post on music too, but popular music,
    ‘The Singer and the Song’ – Part 2, on male singers and their songs.
    Such fun to do, listening to You tube back to Cole Porter.

    Keep well.

  • JMO says:

    Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 was my introduction to classical music at Uni, I then listened to his other symphonies and concertos . I went on from there to Mozart (his teacher), Rossini, Handle, Vivaldi and then to Russian eg Tchaikovsky and yes bits of Scheherazade.

    All wonderful music, absolutely enthralling . Some people thought I was rather strange.

    I also appreciated some modern bands such as Beatles, Elvis (the King), Fleetwood Mac, Queen (remarkable), Eagles etc. Add to this I appreciate softer music such Seekers, Carpenters and even Corrs.

    I just cannot get used to, and shun, the shouting and screaming of Gen Y music.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I didn’t get into popular music and jazz in that essay. As a youth I was much affected by the Hit Parades of the 1950s and the later equivalents in the 1960s. And as the pianist in a jazz trio I was bowled over by Dave Brubeck and the West Coast cool pianists of that time, like Ahmad Jamahl. Yes, McCartney and Lennon will live a long time as songwriters. A lot of what passes for popular music today leaves me mystified if not irritated.

  • Tezza says:

    Lovely essay, Don. Sorry to hear of your recent travails.

    Thanks for reminding us of how privileged we are to have extraordinary access to the Western classical cannon.

    Have you discovered http://allofbach.com/en/ ? It is an incredible video archive of recent top performances of Bach’s work. The comparison with previous generations’ limited access by only a rich elite to concert performance is mind boggling.

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