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By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 4 September 2018

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.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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