Tuesday 20 February 2018

Classical: Music from the man with whiskers and an unforgettable name

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

George Hamilton

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov has one of those names you'll never forget. "What a name!" exclaimed a correspondent of the New York Musical Courier after the American premiere of his Sheherazade. "It suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka!"

Of the whiskers we can be certain. The vodka played less of a central role. The critic had just experienced Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece, the one and only major composition of his that you're likely to know - his take on the tales of The Arabian Nights.

Sheherazade is an orchestral suite, the kind of music at which Rimsky-Korsakov excelled, even if, these days, not much of it is heard beyond the borders of Russia.

His path into the great compendium of composers was somewhat circuitous. Born in comfortable circumstances in a town 200 kilometres to the east of St Petersburg - his father was 60 at the time, and he'd a brother 22 years older than himself.

That brother had gone to sea, so when the young Nika turned 13, he was enrolled in the naval academy in St Petersburg, and it was there that his enthusiasm for music was fired.

He was taken to the opera, and just loved the swell of sound that rose from the orchestra pit. He was fascinated by how it all came together. He got his parents to buy him some manuscript paper and let his musical imagination take hold.

A career at sea was still his ambition, and he set about fulfilling it.

His first mission was a three-year tour that would take in North and South America. But he took his music books with him, and by the time he got back to St Petersburg, he realised that a composer was what he wanted to be.

Despite the fact that he'd had no formal training, he'd completed a most unlikely first work - a full-blown symphony.

It made such an impact when it was premiered that he was offered the post of professor of composition at the St Petersburg conservatory, never mind the fact that he was still only learning the basics of the theory himself.

He'd found his forte. The orchestra was his instrument. Unlike most, he shunned the piano as a first port of call for working out musical ideas. He would plunge straight into the manuscript, building whole scores.

Opera had got him started, and it would be opera that would engage him. He wrote 15 in all, and though they may not be among the most frequently performed, some music from them is nonetheless familiar, not least the humorous and instantly recognisable Flight of the Bumblebee, which crops up in The Tale of Tsar Saltan (a magical bird has turned the Tsar's son into the insect so that he can fly away back to his father!).

There's a piece by Rimsky-Korsakov that was written specifically for this time of year. Inspired by the monastery bells that rang out over his home town heralding the end of the long, hard Russian winter, it's the Russian Easter Overture, 15 minutes of music based on chants from the Orthodox service, culminating, as he put it, in the "unbridled pagan-religious merry-making on the morn of Easter Sunday."

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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