(Este artículo está también disponible en español) The popular composer of some of the most celebrated symphonic pages in the Russian musical literature, died one hundred years ago, the 21st of June. He had been born en 1844 and was in his first maturity when he premiered his Spanish Capriccio or Spanish Caprice, in the frame of the Russian Symphony Concerts, put in place by the patron Belaiev in the city of Saint Petersburg. He certainly owes part of his celebrity as a great orchestrator to this work, which is probably the most popular of all them, together with Scheherezade. While listening to the ovation, he was likely to remember how the score grew inside his mind two decades before.
His brother, some twenty years older than him, was an important commander and director of naval school, in the zone of influence of Alexander II himself. He thought a more promising future for the young Nicolai under his tutelage than around the hazardous world or stages and conservatories. Thus, after a somehow self-taught learning period during his childhood, based on the study of the works by Glinka, Berlioz and Schumann, as well as some regards on Bach, he begun to frequent, when his school ship arrived at port, the social gathering where Balakirev encouraged young composers to follow Glinka’s ideas (Glinka is considered to be the father of the national Russian school), according to which, cultivated music should go in depth in the collective soul of the people, by means of recognition and assumption of the national musical folklore. In 1865 he sailed, as an officer, to America on board of the frigate “Souls”, a journey that was to last one triennium. On the trip back, he should have felt excited about the news of a three-day technical stop in Spain, specifically by the cost of Asturias (north of Spain). Rimsky knew well the scores Jota aragonesa and One night in Madrid, by Glinka, who had formerly some time in this country, and thus he considered the opportunity of learning the colourful Spanish folklore in order to be able to emulate someday the great master. The young officer did not waste any time and got in touch with the composer and folklorist González del Valle, who for sure, offered some good bits of the asturian folklore. He probably took with him to Saint Petersburg a volume of the just published songbook “Echoes from Spain”, by José Inzenga, from which he is supposed to have drawn some of his melodies for the Caprice. It may also be possible that a relative of González del Valle, who travelled to Russia as a diplomatic, could have given it to him in person. Anyhow, the main point is that those melodies picked by Inzenga, got into Rimsky Korsakov’s hands.
Back in his city and dressed in his uniform, as the imperial orderly compelled to, even being out of service, was recalled by the public in his first symphony’s premiere, which he had completed during sailing time, according to the indications of Balakirev, the great mentor, who, after conducting the premiere, did not hesitate to consider it “the first Russian Symphony”. The basis for a Russian musical school was already established. Almost by surprise, Rimsky was offered the composition chair of Saint Petersburg Conservatory. His ability for linking traditional melodies inside the orchestral Romantic framework (though still away from the colours he was to conquer some years later), must have called the attention of the intuitive director of the Conservatory. With this ability, Rimsky disguised, by means of talent and the mentioned ability, his ignorance of some of the basic points of traditional counterpoint and harmony. He, himself, had to admit that could not go any further, after the composition of his first opera, Pskov Maid, and that he needed to learn how to master the academic compositional techniques. No sooner had he realized that his most accomplished students, Glazunov among them, would probably leave him behind, he threw himself into a hard studying of classical fugues and Germanic musical forms. But then, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Balakirev and Cesar Cui (the last two were the most conscientious with their principles of national music), with whom he had founded the group called The mighty fist, that in occident we came to simplify in such an antipoetic way as The five, considered him to have betrayed the principles o musical Russian nationalism. He counted, however, with the support of an open minded personality like Tchaikovsky’s, who stated that the symbiosis personalized in Rimsky Korsakov, between Balakirev’s Free School (whose learning was based on folklore) and the Conservatory (academicism), should launch Russian music to the top, beyond the home land.
From then on, his life marches into several steps, from which he knew how to take good advantage. In 1873, it was created, specifically for him, the odd charge of Supervisor for the Russian Militar Bands, a pure musical task that finally released him from the military discipline. Rimsky, faithfully obeying Balakirev’s advice about trying to show some interest on several arts and sciences, introduced himself in depth into physical laws of acoustic pipes an thus, broadening exponentially his master on wind instruments and the possibilities of these within the orchestra. The original Trombone concert is a fruit of this time.
His travels around a good part of the presovietic geography supervising Militar Bands let him discover his folklore’s vast magnitude and open his compositions to the chants of the orthodox liturgy. He carried out, as a field work, a compilation of Russian popular songs, and made his own arrangements with the accompaniment of piano. He also devoted himself in picking old stories from the Russian folks, several of which were adaptations of Pushkin’s and Gogol’s, to turn them into the libretti of his fifteen operas. Once the technique was achieved, the national soul came back to his works’ first line. And Balakirev smiled to him again.
But, let’s go back to the Spanish Caprice. We find ourselves again in 1887, with Rimsky composing music for the Russian Concert Society. It is the time of Scheherezade, in which the home land is no less than the melting pot of East and West, the Russian Easter overture, inspired by his own sensations at an orthodox church, the Spanish Caprice and his versions of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain and Borodin’s Prince Igor.
Only the forth the movement of the Spanish Caprice, based on a Spanish gipsy song picked up by Inzenga in the Andalucia section of his collection Cantos y bailes populares de España (Spanish popular songs and dances), from 1878, sounds unambiguously Spanish, due to its typical andalucian cadenzas and scales. No doubt that Spanish musical folklore is worldwide identified with Andalucía (south of Spain) till that extent. All the rest movements owe their folk root to the employ of melodies from Asturias (a region of Celtic influence with some similarities to the British Isles). Only those people that know well those melodies can identify this music as Spanish, because it does not sound Andalucian in any way. The first and third movements show a dawn chorus (alborada), originally played with the asturian bagpipe, and express the optimism of dawn after the wedding night. In Asturias, being the folks holding hands around the fire during the summer solstice night (noche de San Juan), they sing and perform the First dance (danza prima). This is the melody that can be perfectly recognised in the second movement. The work ends with a styling of the typical Fandango asturiano, also for asturian bagpipes, in which the melody of the well known (for our great grand parents) song “Por favor, por favor, dame un beso y verás” (Please, please, kiss me and you’ll see), later popularized by Franz Lehar in his 1909 opereta The Count of Luxemburg. With all that stuff, Rimsky plays to show the essence of the “typical Spanish”, through a colourful and festive mood.
The last part of his life, till 1908, after having got in touch with the Wagnerian Ring in Saint Petersburg (1888), he devotes his efforts into opera (all of them in Russian, of course). All the fifteen of them show an omnipresent national element, not only in their libretti, but also in their melodic and harmonic structures. While composing his operas, he practised absolutely everything he had learnt till then, especially in The golden cockerel, the last of all (1905), a master piece that syncretises the most advanced state of compositional art of the Wagnerian drama, with Tchaikovsky’s operas, but with the indispensable reference of Mussorgsky. Vocal melodies flow through unbelievable intervals, out of the folklore of certain oriental Russian regions, as an imitation of the melodic lines of some kind of popular flutes. These are operas that involve huge human resources, they last pretty long and cost a good sum of money to produce. Nowadays, only some excerpts are well known and popularised, like Flight of the bumblebee, from Tsar Saltan; The procession of nobles, from Mlada; or the Song of India, from Sadko; and the absolutely suggestive Himn to the sun, from The Golden Cockerel.