He’s famous as an orchestral wizard, a brilliant illustrator of colourful tales and legends, one of the pioneering founders of the Russian nationalist movement in music. But Rimsky-Korsakov has also had the bad luck to be one of those prolific composers who is widely known for only a handful of works which aren’t even his most representative. But then, his music and life are full of rich contradictions: between the practical and the idealistic, the earthly and the exotic.

A man of his time and country, Rimsky-Korsakov experienced that common Russian feeling of being tugged in opposite directions by the appeal of Western ideas and national traditions, by the sophistication of the cities and a timeless peasant culture rich in legend and folklore. Born in 1844 into a shabby-genteel family in Tikhvin around 100 miles east of St Petersburg, he absorbed a living folksong tradition from an early age and became fascinated by the musical rituals of the great Monastery of the Virgin across the river from his home. However, music was pleasure rather than passion, and his brother – 22 years his senior, who later became a distinguished admiral – would steer him into a naval career.

As a naval cadet in St Petersburg, Rimsky-Korsakov fell into the orbit of Mily Balakirev, that strange, dogmatic figure who inspired such emerging talents as Borodin and Musorgsky. Balakirev soon decided that Rimsky-Korsakov should compose a symphony – seemingly a near-impossible task for a boy so ignorant of the basic rudiments of music. Much of the Symphony was composed during a three-year cruise as midshipman on the clipper Almaz which included the Mediterranean and the coasts of North and South America. When it was performed in St Petersburg on New Year’s Eve 1865, the nationalists hailed it as ‘the first Russian symphony’, something of a snub to the distinguished pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who had recently produced three rather German-sounding sounding symphonies.

In 1868-71 Rimsky-Korsakov embarked on another ambitious project, the opera Pskovityanka (The Maid of Pskov), a historical drama that showed great dramatic talent and original touches, such as the vivid crowd scenes. Its vocal style has much in common with Boris Godunov, and indeed some of it was composed when Rimsky and Musorgsky were sharing rooms. After its performance in January 1873, however, Rimsky decided to stop composing for a while. What he saw as the amateurishness of the Balakirev circle upset him, and so he accepted a teaching post at the St Petersburg conservatory. There he made an intensive study of harmony and counterpoint in order to keep up with his pupils, and learned to rehearse and conduct an orchestra.

When he returned to composition, Rimsky-Korsakov’s conscientious striving for technical improvement prompted him to produce many academic works and exercises; right up to the end of his life, his sense of duty and professionalism made him compose whether inspired or not. He was the first to admit that his output was uneven. But when the stimulus was right and the ideas came freely, he could produce music flooded with light and colour, with fine melodies and refined rhythmic sense.

Such was the case with his third opera, The Snow Maiden. Based on an almost ready-made libretto from Ostrovsky’s play, a parable of spring and re-birth, Rimsky’s setting abounds in different types of folk song and dance, and gives distinct life to the different human and non-human characters. ‘My mild interest in ancient Russian customs and heathen pantheism flared up,’ he wrote, and when he completed it in 1881 he felt he had become ‘a mature musician, standing firmly on my feet as an opera composer’. He often referred to it as his best work.

However, it was the summers of 1887 and 1888 that saw him compose the three works by which he would become best known: the Capriccio Espagnol, the Russian Easter Overture and Sheherazade. They were among the last of his purely orchestral works, and were followed by a three-year period of silence brought about by ill health, family problems and Wagner, whose Ring cycle he heard in 1888-89. Wagner was both a positive and negative stimulus: on the one hand, Rimsky-Korsakov was able to borrow from Wagner’s orchestral techniques and harmonic procedures, but like most Russians he found the Wagnerian ethos, with its daunting lengths and philosophical obscurities, distasteful.

A kind and generous man, Rimsky-Korsakov was a fine teacher, nourishing dozens of talents of Glazunov and Stravinsky among others. He was also clear-sighted and self-critical – proud of his finer works but harbouring no illusions about his more routine ones. He hated being over-praised. His scores show little interest in abstract form or structure, and he never aimed at self-expression or the baring of his soul. His music is decorative, relying for its effect on bright colours, exciting contrasts and beauty of sound.

In his mid-40s, Rimsky-Korsakov turned to the theatre and the remaining 20 years of his life saw him compose 12 of his 15 operas, which include some of his finest music. Outstanding among them are Sadko (1894-96) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1899-1900), featuring the famous ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’, which hover between the worlds of reality and fantasy; The Golden Cockerel (1906-07), in which he gave rein to his sense of irony, satire and the absurd; and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh (1903-1905) which has a spiritual dimension that may have surprised even its rationalist composer. He once confessed: ‘I doubt if you would find anyone more incredulous of everything supernatural, fantastic, phantasmal or lying beyond the grave, yet as an artist it’s these things that I love above all. Art is the most enchanting and intoxicating of lies.’

Andrew Huth