Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian Five

Scheherazade (movement 1)

Last fall, the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra performed “Scheherazade” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I played in the 1st violin section of the Symphony at the time. It is a wonderful piece of music, I jokingly nick-named it the “Disney Symphony” because so many sections of it seem to have inspired other music for Disney films.

Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the book on orchestration (giving bits of music to all the various instruments) – in a very literal way. He actually wrote “Principles of Orchestration” in which he apparently cites his own works as examples. Rimsky-Korsakov (R-K for short) really was a master of orchestration, though – works such as “Night on Bald Mountain”by Modest Mussorgsky, were completed and/or orchestrated by R-K (Mussorgsky tragically died at the age of 42). Other famous orchestral works by R-K include “Capriccio Espagnol”, and “Russian Easter Festival Overture”.

Speaking of Mussorgsky, this leads to a discussion of “The Russian Five”, also know as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful”. They were comprised of composers Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimksy-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin. Their goal was to write specifically “Russian” music, rather than relying on training or imitating previous European music. Interestingly enough, none of the composers in “The Five” had any formal compositional training, all being self-taught and having other previous careers. This is at least one reason that Peter Tchaikovsky, another famous Russian composer, has never been grouped with “The Five” (Tchaikovsky was a Conservatory teacher and composer).

To bring us around full circle – R-K must have done a lot of observing. He is considered one of the great orchestrators, and yet never took any official lessons. So we should observe too – I personally think lessons are very good – and yet we can glean so much from others’ observations, even informally. Thankfully, we have the works of men like R-K to study and learn from.

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