Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Overture on Three Russian Themes Op. 28 (1866)

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born into an aristocratic family, in Tikhvin, near Novgorod in 1844. As a child he was a gifted pianist, but his family did not regard music as a suitable career for someone of his social status, and sent him to the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St. Petersburg to train as a naval officer. During his education he became involved with the thriving musical life of the capital, meeting Mily Balakirev in 1861. Balakirev had an established reputation as a musician and greatly encouraged the young Nikolai in composition. At the same time the group of amateur composers known as "the five" or the "mighty handful" came together. They were Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. They opposed the growing trend of intellectualism in music, exemplified by the work of Richard Wagner, and favoured a return to simpler lyrical forms and the use of folk music. In 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov sailed as a young naval officer on a journey that would last for three years, during which he visited England and the United States. Although separated from his musical peers he did not abandon composition, and completed his first symphony during the voyage. After returning to St. Petersburg in 1865, he revised the symphony following the direction of Balakirev, and it was performed the same year. Rimsky-Korsakov appeared on stage in his naval uniform to acknowledge the applause. The audience was incredulous that a naval officer could have written such a work.

In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory as Professor of Practical Composition. Although he had gained a reputation as a composer he had practically no knowledge of musical theory. In his first years of teaching, he bluffed his way through classes, recalling that "at first none of my pupils could imagine that I knew nothing, and by the time they had learned enough to begin to see through me, I had learned something myself!" With encouragement from Tchaikovsky he began to teach himself harmony, counterpoint, musical form and orchestration. In time he became famous as a music theorist, writing a treatise on orchestration which is still used today. His association with Tchaikovsky and the adoption of a more intellectual approach to music distanced him from "the five", though he continued to support them all his life.

The overture on three Russian themes was written in 1866, on the suggestion of Balakirev. It was revised in 1880. It begins with a slow introduction based on a famous Russian hymn tune known as 'Slava (Gloria)', which also is heard in Beethoven's quartet Opus 59 No 2, and in the coronation scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Gudonov. A lively allegro follows introducing the two other themes 'At The Gates', which also appears in Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture, and 'Ivan wears a big coat'. The three themes are then intertwined and developed moving through several keys, but still remaining instantly recognisable. The coda starts with a slower section, echoing the opening of the overture, and then features a grand statement of 'Slava' for the whole orchestra, concluding in a mood of lively triumph.

The Overture on Three Russian Themes was performed by the Portobello Orchestra on the 6th April 2019, conducted by Sam Jones.