22nd April 2022

Book in Focus
The Political in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Operas

By John Nelson

Summary of the Book’s Content

The aim of the kuchka composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) was to demonstrate that there existed a unique and indigenous Russian music that could challenge the Germanic teaching of Anton Rubinstein at the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatoire. It was Rimsky-Korsakov who was able to consolidate this view. Although seen as a conservative teacher, he systematically attacked, in a calculated way, the tsarist policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries through his choice of both opera libretti and texts for his romances. At the same time, he ensured that the talent of his contemporaries became recognised not only throughout Russi,a but subsequently worldwide. With his operas from The Tsar’s Bride, premiered in 1899, onwards, his criticism of the internal suppression of radical dissent, the foreign policy, and the enforcement of autocracy by Tsar Nicholas II and his bureaucracy intensified. He can be seen as a contributor to the thinking of the radical elements of Russian society that eventually led to the 1917 Revolution.

Background to the Book

Tom Service wrote in The Guardian in 2008: “Rimsky-Korsakov: the forgotten centenary”, and it is a fact that Rimsky-Korsakov is essentially remembered for a few catchy tunes such as The Flight of the Bumblebee and The Song of India. This was already noted by the composer and conductor Lazare Saminsky in 1939 who wrote in his Music of Our Day: “The world at large has created a popular image of Rimski-Korsakov in conformity with the naked orientalism of Shéhérazade and Chant Hindou”. Rimsky-Korsakov is often criticised for his arrangements of Borodin’s and Mussorgsky’s operas and songs, although he himself admitted in 1904 that “I had not destroyed the original form...If ever the conclusion is arrived at that the original form is better, worthier than my original, mine will be discarded”. However, without his recognition of their talent and promotion of their works they may not have reached the international opera stage. His own later works, bordering on the atonic, set the stage for many of his now internationally recognised pupils such as Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Prokofiev, and his exercises for them pushed them further in that direction.

Although numerous works on Rimsky-Korsakov, his life, individual operas and compositional works, in both Russian and English, exist—see, for instance, Gerald R. Seaman’s excellent Nikolay Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov. A Research and Information Guide. Second Edition (2015)—the socio-political significance of Rimsky-Korsakov as a critic of the tsar has not yet been analysed. There are also countless volumes written on Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky. The ideological struggles between Stalin and Shostakovich have also merited extensive study. It is of note that Stalin suggested Shostakovich turn to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to compose music more akin to the recognisable tunes associated with everyday life in Russia, which would also support the State ideology of socialist-realism. However, already in the 19th century, Rimsky-Korsakov was using his operas to protest against the tsarist regime and, in particular, the continuing adherence to the 1833 ‘Official Nationality’ decree of Nicholas I based on ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’. The aim of this book is to broaden one’s opinion of the composer and to show that not only was he an integral part of the artist movement in Russia away from conservative constraints of the official academies, such as The Wanderers (peredvizhniki), and the state-centred Western-leaning bureaucracy, but that he also had a supporting influence on the radical elements of society opposing tsarist autocracy. Returning to Saminsky: “For that matter did the world at large, who had an inkling of the real Rimski-Korsakov in Cocq d’or, sense all the import and historical consequence of this work?”

Whilst music has naturally, in the past, been central to studies of composers it also essential to take into account that they are people who find it easier to express their inner feelings through music. Their environment and political surroundings influence their outbursts, particularly when their choice of libretti is also subjected to restraints. Mozart’s operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, written between 1776 and 1790, appealed to an intellectual and enlightened middle and lower class that questioned the established customs and norms of the aristocracy. Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio centres on oppression and the imprisonment of the innocent. This was very prevalent in mainland Europe following the French Revolution and its aftermath. Beethoven returned to this theme in 1824 when using Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ for his final Symphony No. 9, ‘The Choral’, showing political defiance against undemocratic societies: “Do you not kneel down low, you millions?” It is not surprising that the European events also influenced Russia in the 19th century, especially as a result of the wave of unrest in Europe in 1848 leading Nicholas I to increase censorship.

During his early life, Rimsky-Korsakov the political scene initially changed in Russia following the death of Nicholas I. His successor Alexander II initially acknowledged that suppression only bred discontent and consequently enacted, amongst others, the Serf Emancipation Decree in 1861, followed by a revision of the Criminal Law in 1864. However, the radical opposition took advantage of these freedoms and undertook acts of terrorism, which led to increased censorship and restrictions. There were also opposing views within Rimsky-Korsakov’s close family. There had been a long line of admirals in the family, and his brother Voin was a Rear Admiral and Director of the Naval Cadet School. His father, on the other hand, had been dismissed by Nicholas I for being too lenient with the Poles under his authority following the Polish Uprising of 1830. Through his training and contacts within the navy, Rimsky-Korsakov became increasingly familiar with the Russian and international liberal and critical literature of the day. During a visit to London, he was warned by his mother not to visit the radical socialist Alexander Herzen who lived there, publishing his newspaper ‘The Bell’ (Kolokol), which was widely read in Russia and even by the tsar, although it was banned. However, he also became aware of the democratic nature of Western society, and this led him to question the socio-political nature of Russian society. His initial opera The Maid of Pskov had as its setting the free-city of Pskov, electing its own mayor. This went against the autocratic ‘God-appointed’ concept of the tsar and questioned the foundation of the state autocracy. Rimsky-Korsakov can be seen to have been a politically motivated composer whose opera themes were chosen, not only to question the tsarist bureaucracy, but also to show that the ‘Official Nationality’ decree no longer represented a Russian society that had changed significantly and needed a new interpretation. In this respect, he had a significant influence on the aspirations of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

With an increasing number of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas being performed onstage and also now available on CD and DVD, I hope that this will lead to a re-evaluation and appreciation of the composer in a new light. He not only had a defining influence on the Russian composers of the 20th century by showing how music was developing, but was also an influencer on the acceptance and performance of his contemporaries. He should also be seen on a broader canvas and noted for his significant contribution to strengthening the views of an increasingly critical intellectual and urban commercial society towards the restrictive tsarist autocratic bureaucracy.

Overview of Chapter 3 on ‘A questioning of Russia’s attitude to Ukraine and Poland’

The Valuev Decree of 1863 was a secret circular that banned publications in the Ukrainian language since it was considered that the so-called ‘Little Russian’ language did not exist. This was followed in 1876 by the Ems Decree, which was again secret, but essentially banned all elements of Ukrainian culture, language, and music. Against this political background, Rimsky-Korsakov chose to use two stories from the Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol’s Evenings near the Village of Dikanka as the basis for the operas May Night, premiered in 1880, and Christmas Eve, premiered in 1895. The situation of Poland mirrored that of Ukraine. The uprising of radicals in Poland in 1831 resulted in Rimsky-Korsakov’s father being dismissed as Governor of Volhynia for being too lenient towards Poles under his jurisdiction. Following unrest by extremists by both the army and students in 1864, Polish autonomy was revoked, and Poland became fully integrated into the Russian bureaucracy. This Russification extended to language, where the use of Polish was forbidden. Rimsky-Korsakov criticised the brutal actions of the Russian governors through his opera Pan Voyevoda. This chapter outlines the history and politics of Russia towards the peripheral countries of the Empire and explores how Rimsky-Korsakov particularly underlines his criticism of the tsarist regime, not only through his use of language and music in the operas, but by directly challenging the policies of the government. His view was that Russian society was enriched by embracing the culture of the peripheral countries, rather than suppressing it. This also becomes very pertinent when considering the actions of Russia in Ukraine today.


The comments of Professor Andrei Denisov of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and Herzen State Pedagogical University on the author’s approach perhaps indicate the methodology used best: “The subject of the [author’s] work proves its interdisciplinary character integrating not only traditional methods of art theory and history, but also research strategies of sociology, aesthetics, cultural history... No doubt, this work will be interesting not only to specialists of art history, but also to musical culture and philosophy”.

John Nelson has sung with the Sibelius Academy Chamber Choir, as well as other major choirs in both Finland and England. Between 1995 and 2007, he assisted the Mikkeli Music Festival (Artistic Director, Valery Gergiev) and was Intendant from 2001-2007. He continues to assist a number of international musicians, including the Georgian National Opera. In 2006, he gained his BA (Hons) in Opera Studies and was awarded a PhD from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Helsinki in 2013. His thesis was entitled “The significance of Rimsky-Korsakov in the development of a Russian national identity”. Since then, he has served as an External Postdoctoral Researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute, Finland. He has a research interest in the interaction between the arts and the socio-political aspects of national identity.

The Political in Rimsky-Korsakov's Operas is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 to redeem. eBook available from Google Play

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