Featured Review
The Political in Rimsky-Korsakov's Operas"/>

28th July 2022

Featured Review
The Political in Rimsky-Korsakov's Operas


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) is one of the great masters of the opera, not only in Russia, but throughout European music history. At the same time, he is also one of the most forgotten and neglected operatic geniuses with his fifteen operas.  His career covers a period of practically 40 years, from 1868 to 1908. In this sense he shares much of the destiny of his age-mate, Jules Massenet (1842–1912), of whose 25 operas, only half-a-dozen belong to the common repertoire. It is possible to speculate that even the most enthusiastic opera lovers outside of Russia hardly know more than two or three Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, perhaps only Mozart and Salieri (1898), The Tsar’s Bride (1899) and The Golden Cockerel (1907). The more popular Tchaikovsky is known primarily for his Yevgeny Onegin (1879), Queen of Spades (1890) and Iolanta (1892), Mussorgsky for his Boris Godunov (1868–73).

Furthermore, if a person knows some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas, it can be additionally asked, does said individual know what the various connections between the operas and their backgrounds are? We know, at overage level, that during the nineteenth century opera, as a genre, was almost always linked to politics, either with national or imperialistic emphasis. This is the case with Verdi and Wagner, Meyerbeer and Massenet – not to speak about the operas of the so-called national schools, like those composed in Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Balkan countries etc.

While only few – if any – profound studies on Rimsky-Korsakov and his operas have been written, his performances have been discussed outside of Russia especially, mainly in detailed studies concentrating on only one or just a few operas. Fortunately, John Nelson has taken on a challenging task to shed light on the complex issue of the Russian state’s “Official Nationality” – Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality – formulated in 1834 edict and Rimsky-Korsakov’s relation to this dogma. In the new book, “The Political in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Operas”, Nelson has opened up Pandora’s box: who could have anticipated the new significations which would be resulted in his investigation of Rimsky’s operas in relation to Russia’s complex history during the nineteenth century. Perhaps only Wagner has been studied earlier from a similar point of view.

Firstly, the writer describes very helpfully to the reader Rimsky-Korsakov’s family background and its meaning to the composer’s later political and national orientations. Nelson also discusses Rimsky-Korsakov’s formative years, his studies, journeys and musical experiences. Further he considers Rimsky-Korsakov’s awakening to observe the many problems in the big imperium: autocracy, life of the various social groups, official orthodoxy and the tsaristic policy in relation to its provinces, like Poland and Ukraine, with their arbitrary and rotten administrations. Rimsky’s intellectual circles, containing writers and fellow musicians, especially the Mighty Five, are important referential groups in understanding his political development and strengthening criticism of the state, its leaders and the depressive atmosphere among artists and other members of the intelligentsia.

The, in many ways, paralleled circumstances in European countries regarding their governing, censorship, freedom and autocracy forms, in the book, promises an introduction to discussion of the Russian regime and its specific features. Perchance the writer could have been more cautious in the comparison, as also in many European countries, like France, Italy and Austro-German’s double monarchy, the censorship was rigid until the late nineteenth century. In France, for instance, one of the leading writers, Victor Hugo, lived in exile from 1855–1870, and the French opera institutions were controlled strictly by the state, while only during certain limited times the control became easier during the time of Napoleon III (1848–70). Austrian politics, with its limited freedom of opinion, the central role of the secret police in the country, and Habsburg monarchy’s brutal policy against Bohemian lands and Hungary are miserable facts during the otherwise glorious period of the imperium. Vienna’s Court Theatre and restrictions towards it are fortunately referred to: similar problems in Russia in relation to “religion, the State and good manners” are mentioned. In Italy, Verdi’s constant problems of censorship with his many early and middle period operas, like Rigoletto (1851) and Un ballo di maschera (1859) are well known. In this sense, it is good to know that also in Russia occasional greater freedom to press was given (p. 8), especially under Alexander II, in 1865 to 1881, to end totally in 1905.

Nelson discusses the issue of nationality and national identity many times, admitting that its definition is difficult. The question then is, whose concept of it is supposedly the “right one”, who has determined its content and on which premises? Or do different concepts exist at certain point of time? In the context of this book, one definition, deviating from the “official” one, is presented and based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s writings and operas. Usually, the national identity has, in history, been given by the intellectual upper class, which then has tried to “sell” its ideas down to the common people. Several modern historians have written about building the idea of nationality, foremostly Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Community. Rimsky was obviously trying to describe, in his operas, the habits, life and music of the peasants, and he might also have achieved a “truer” picture of the poor people than what the State tried to believe about the character and duties of the lower class. However, it is still important to remember Anderson’s thesis. Gogol and some other writers like Mey, Chernyshevsky, Herzen and Belinsky, in their criticism of power and bureaucracy were instrumental in this process in Russia by giving a more important role to the lower groups of the people than earlier – and giving impulses and materials for Rimsky-Korsakov’s growing doubts about the autocracy and other parts of the dogma.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera, The Maid of Pskov (1868-72), is already symptomatic to Rimsky’s political orientation – and also Nelson’s reading of its subtext. The plot discusses Pskov city during the reign of Ivan the Terrible after he had carried out a massacre in Novgorod; thus, his entrance to Pskov is full of tension, because Pskov was a rather democratic and independent city, which was not really tolerated by the censorship. Ivan’s possible rage is tempered, when he feels sympathy towards Olga, who is later revealed to be Ivan’s illegitimate child, which saves the city, especially because its people pray for salvation. As during the composition prevailed greater freedom than what was experienced during most of the late nineteenth century, and as we are told that irrespective of it there were problems with the censorship, the reader asks, whether the lines in the libretto referring to Novgorod and Ivan’s cruelty can be applied to the current situation in Russia in the 1860s and 1870s? Nelson’s reading is arguable, and the reader of the book is grateful for getting informed about the background of the opera, although in it can be found other, more positive scenes (p. 15, 53–62). It can be asked though, whether the expression of Ivan’s “rage against Pskov” is too stark in the light of the opera’s entire plot and events?

The case of Poland is described in Pan Voyevoda (1902–03). It also opens some possibilities to discussion. Rimsky-Korsakov’s father’s undeserved dismission by Nicholas I from his position as State Cancellor in Poland in Volhynia due to his overly sympathetic attitude towards the local landlords, gave Rimsky-Korsakov’s Polish opera a strong personal involvement. The cruel character of the governor Wojewoda, who thinks it is natural to have power over all his subordinates and the right to take any girl he pleases and give his enemies death sentences, is rather disturbing. This might have been a true picture of Russia over Poland, and Rimsky’s colorful and ingenious music paints all the situations in a sure and fantastic way. This is one of those operas that the neglect of which is indeed deplorable. However, it would have been illuminating to make references to Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836) and Musorgsky’s full five-act version of Boris Godunov (1872) with its “Polish Act” and their Polish elements. Even more apt, possibility, to make comparisons to Moniuszko’s opera Halka (1858), in which a Polish nobleman behaves carelessly towards a girl who is pregnant with his child and abandons her. In addition to this, it would have been interesting for the reader to have some contrasts between the librettos and plots amongst operas of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, which share the same subject in the cases of Voyevoda, Snegurochka, Kuznets Vakula, and Cherevichki, in order to know, whether Tchaikovsky’s operas contain similarities or any criticism of Tsar’s regiment as portrayed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas.

Nelson portrays the issue of Orthodoxy as essential throughout his book: the relation between State and people’s religions and their attitudes towards the official Orthodoxy with its dogma. People’s religious behavior, connected to pagan rituals, which deviated from the official church, is indeed an exciting issue, at least in the two “Gogol operas” – Christmas Eve, May Night – and in The Snow Maiden. The plot of Christmas Eve is as Chagall-spirited story about Devil’s and Solovkha’s stealing the moon and Smith Vakula’s ride to St. Peterburg on Devil’s back is as fantastic as impious. In it the meeting between Vakula and Tsarina is for a while a positive episode in encountering the highest power. In May Night the magic of Spring is connected to people’s pagan belief in nature spirits, the rusalki, and bad ruling of the local representative of tsar. The Snow Maiden is a completely pagan and unchristian story about the seasons and people’s life according to and in harmony with nature. It is obvious that this kind of natural religion and its mixture with the official belief can have meant a conflict between the official church and the village life with its feasts and adoring of nature’s spirits. These feasts and ceremonies included a lot of folk songs and dances, whose omnipotence has been described in Nelson’s book in a very attractive way.

After reading chapters discussing the Orthodoxy and paganism involved within it, Rimsky-Korsakov’s criticism of the Orthodoxy and it as one essential of the “Official Nationality” becomes self-evident to the reader. However, as the church year and calendar of the church were originally born connected to the periods of the year and the seasons, these two aspects of the religion were inevitably the two sides of the same coin in any agricultural country. This situation continues today in Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox countries and has been widely accepted. In Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) – he was one of the many Rimsky’s disciples – the pagan rituals of one single season are all the more highlighted than in Rimsky’s oeuvre and they lead to an extreme result: sacrifice of a young girl to guarantee a good harvest. It is important to discuss the conflict between the Christian and Pagan traditions, although this conflict hardly touched only Orthodox church and states. In addition to this, the amalgamation of folk songs and church melodies has been deemed convention and regular phenomenon ever since the Christianity’s beginning.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s deep interest in and apology of the Old Believers is convincingly presented. The role of many famous families, like Morozov and Tretiakov, as the motor in Moscow, promoting the intellectual and religious freedom and the industrial revolution in close co-operation with Western countries is a fascinating reading. Particularly, as the picture that has earlier been given of them is totally different, presented often as caricatures of Russian people on the stage, partially also in Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina (1872–80), complemented by Rimsky-Korsakov (1881–82), whose orchestrated version was first heard in 1886. One of Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest scores, The Invisible City of Kitezh (1904), expresses profoundly Rimsky’s understanding and appreciation of Old Believers’ lives and beliefs. The claim, that the Old Believers and the Slavophiles maintained and developed the “true Russian identity”, is somewhat new and perhaps even provocative, and it comes as a surprise. It can be taken also as a little contradictory, as they promoted “the Western style of Democracy”, which would have needed some further discussion, as the West was not simply democratic, most of its countries were based still on monarchy and privileges of the ruling classes.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s criticism of Tsar Nicholas II is deeply significant in his late operas The Tales of Tsar Saltan (1880), Kashchei the Immortal (1902) and The Golden Cockerel (1907). To such an extent that it is sometimes even difficult to believe that they could be put on stage, as Rimsky-Korsakov was operating in them courageously, even attacking the weak Tsar, who was unable to lead the vast imperium with many provinces and ethnicities. As Nelson tells, the background for the sharpened criticism was made possible by the new liberalism that permitted private theatres to be founded. Industrialist Marmontov was manufacturing in this new situation, arranging performances of some of Rimsky’s operas, which were first forbidden or not accepted at the Imperial theatres. Marmontoväs theatre made it possible to give performances for a wider audience than earlier. It is interesting to read, that “the composer’s view was that his operas were for the people, not the elite.” As Rimsky-Korsakov’s sympathies towards workers’ movement or Socialism has not been discussed in the book, this comes as a small surprise, although it is believable on the background of his love for folk music. It would have been good to know, which social strata were represented at the performances in Marmontov’s Private Opera. Also, was it the Tsar’s weakness as a leader or the growing liberalism that reached Russia, when the new situation was possible. The information, that Russian opera was not favored at the Imperial Theatres, speaks about the nobility’s non-national or non-Russian attitudes and preferences in St. Petersburg, where German and French languages were more important than Russian – not to speak about Gogol’s Ukrainian language.

Description of events of the year 1905 are most captivating, as it meant Rimsky appearance as an almost revolutionary person, when he defended the student’s riot and miserable life without intellectual and economic safety and freedom. His newspaper writing was, as a statement, a remarkable public act. When Rimsky had been dismissed from the position of Rector of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, he received a lot of support from the intelligentsia – also the Finnish conductor Robert Kajanus supported him (not told in this book).

Nelson adds hugely to the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Rimsky-Korsakov’s songs or romances. That Tolstoy and Mey were in their poems defying tsarist attitudes and policies is easy to understand, but Pushkin’s standing at the same front comes also as small surprise. Those romances that seemed earlier love songs, seem to contain now, in Nelson’s interpretation, political allusions. Some of these writer’s poem lines are not that obviously politically charged, and the reader can sometimes react to them as overinterpretations, although it is known that words like ‘spring’, ‘sunshine’ etc. can serve as allegorical hints towards liberation and freedom. The Golden Cockerel, based on Pushkin’s poem, by the very same title, is a much more convincing allegory, describing in Rimsky’s opera, the incompetent, caricature-like Tsar Nicholas II, who had lost the Russo-Japanese war and given the command to shoot demonstrators on the Red Square in 1905. Thus Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas may have a role in strengthening the revolutionary pathos of the people, at least the most enlightened part of it.

In the Summary, Rimski-Korsakov’s creative output has been divides into three periods.  The first one, taking the years from 1855 to 1872, is characterized mostly by orchestral works; the second lasted from 1872 to 1893 and was his professional maturing period, during which he studied musical techniques, wrote textbooks, collected folk songs and composed his most famous operas alongside completing performances of his fellow composers.  During the extremely prolific last period from 1894 to 1908, Rimsky’s musical skills were further refined and his criticism of the autocracy was hugely sharpened. His willingness to see the Christianity fused with pre-Christian and pagan elements was, during this period, modern and open-minded. Although his and his Kutchka circle wanted to create a true Russian style using folksongs, it must be remembered, that the circle never did reject the Western techniques, as can be seen in Balakirev’s piano music influenced by Chopin and Liszt, in Borodin’s chamber music being close to Western late romantic music, and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Verdi influences in his operas and harmonic style derived from Wagner. The cruel governances of Poland and Ukraine are properly emphasized, although Verdi, for instance in his Il trovatore (1853), Don Carlos (1867) and Aida (1871), as well as Massenet in Le roi de Lahore (1877) and Le Cid (1885), could give similar kinds of examples about using violence against enemies or hated people (groups). When Rimsky-Korsakov’s and his Russian colleagues’ operas made a breakthrough in Paris around the turn of the century, it would have been necessary to mention that this was preceded by the Franco-Russian Alliance from 1891 to 1917, which meant that French composers were given the possibility to become acquainted with Russian music – and adopt some of its techniques, like the whole-tone scale that could be already found in Glinka’s music.

The wide scale of discussions and ample information of Russian history and culture and their close connections to the political issues through the nineteenth century, rewards the reader and widens hugely his or her perspective. John Nelson’s scrupulous investigations and knowledge of a wide quantity of sources in both English and Russian languages, makes the book a priceless treasure of the subject under study. This is THE authoritative book for every lover, student, professional musician and music historian on the great Russian genius, who was the first composer to have remarkable influence on his country’s destinies. John Nelson’s achievement is worthy of full praise and will, for many years and decades to come, remain the book to which one will return regularly and exploit as a source of reference. Many colorful pictures, mostly paintings by Russian artists, and appendices, supply a gratifying and necessary surplus to the reader.


Veijo Murtomaki is Professor Emeritus of Music History at the University of Arts, Helsinki. He is a music researcher specializing in, among other things, the music of Jean Sibelius. In addition, he regularly writes music reviews and articles. You can find out more about his work here.


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