Sunday, March 26, 2006


Rimski-Korsakov: Formal Study

From a letter to Semyon Kruglikov, November 9, 1880 Nikolai Andreyevitch Rimski-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote:

One can learn by oneself; sometimes one needs advice, but one has also to learn, that is, one must not neglect harmony and counterpoint and the development of a good technique and a clean leading subject. All of us, myself and Borodin and Balakirev, but especially Cui and Moussorgsky, neglected this. I consider that I caught myself in time and made myself get down to work. Owing to such deficiencies in technique Balakirev writes little; Borodin, with difficulty; Cui sloppily; Moussorgsky, messily and often nonsensically; and all this constitutes the very regrettable specialty of the Russian school.

Like his colleagues in the "Big Five," Rimski-Korsakov was a musician by avocation, at least at the inception of his composing career. By profession he was a naval officer, following in the tradition of his family. His first large scale work, a Symphony in E-flat minor (Opus 1), was composed under Balakirev's influence and guidance, while he was still ignorant of even the names of chords and the elementary rules of part writing.

Unlike his colleagues, he devoted himself assiduously to the formal study of harmony, counterpoint and form, study which aroused cynicism in Moussorgsky (who dubbed it "routine, lifeless, and reactionary" and skepticism in Tchaikovsky (who spoke of "contrapuntal intricacies"). Nevertheless, it was this study which enabled him to revise and polish Moussorgsky's at times awkwardly written and often unfinished works after the latter's death, to orchestrate Dargomijsky's Stone Guest and with his pupil, Glazounov, to finish and orchestrate Borodin's Prince Igor.

Numbered among his many gifted students were Glazounov, Ipolitov-Ivanov, and Stravinsky.



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