Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1

Notes by TŌN harpist Emily Melendes

In the Navy
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 has perhaps the strangest origin story of any musical work I’ve performed. Born in Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov was fascinated by music from early boyhood; he marveled at the wonders of opera, learned to play the piano, and even began writing compositions at the age of ten. When he turned 17, however, his family decided piano lessons should take a back seat to a career in the Russian navy. His former piano teacher suggested he study theory and composition in lieu of an instrument, a path that in 1861 led him to Mily Balakirev, who would become Rimsky-Korsakov’s mentor and collaborator. Balakirev gave the fledgling composer a monumental initial challenge: write an entire symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov set about this task eagerly, but naval duty interfered, and at the age of 18 he began a three-year tour with only an initial draft of the symphony’s first and final movements. He initially preferred the company of his composition to that of his fellow seamen and wrote the second movement of his symphony while at sea, dutifully stopping to buy additional scores at port cities to further his self-taught studies. Quickly, though, the wonders of the world took hold of him. For the first time he experienced London, Rio de Janiero, and Niagra Falls. He absorbed the writings of Goethe, Schiller, and Homer, and returned home to St. Petersburg in 1865 to compose the third movement of his symphony, the Scherzo. Balakirev edited and polished the work, and by December 31st of that same year, Balakirev conducted and premiered the symphony at his Free School of Music.

The First “Russian Symphony”
Rimsky-Korsakov’s friends hailed the work as the first truly Russian symphony due to Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of Russian folk melodies and his avoidance of traditionally German compositional techniques. I find it interesting, though, that the first “Russian symphony” came about through Rimsky-Korsakov’s tour of the wider world, and I enjoy looking at his work through this lens. The piece brims with youthful exuberance and pizzazz, and while perhaps lacking the sophisticated compositional mastery of his later works, to me it tells a tale of adventure and discovery, one rife with Russian identity and tender recollections of home. From the bombastic statement of the first movement, to the swelling sincerity of the second, the frenzied energy of the Scherzo, and the densely packed resplendency of the fourth movement, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 1 is a treat both to hear and to perform. I hope you enjoy its creativity and imagination as much as I have.