Music changes. It might change slowly, over centuries, as in the thousand-year development of polyphony* that led us out of the Middle Ages. But it can also change quickly, when sufficient development and enough international cohesion initiates a whole new period. Among the quickest is the Florentine invention of recitative that, in less than a generation, spread across Europe, ushering in the Baroque Era, replacing the two-hundred-year-old Renaissance, and giving us opera.
The sons of J. S. Bach abandoned their father’s German “learned” style in favor of the limpid grace of the Italian “galante,” and in less than a generation, Europe decided J. S. Bach was old hat and C. P. E. Bach was a cutting-edge master. Many would agree that Mozart is the acme of that particular change, and from it, Beethoven opened the door to romanticism. Many composers will join Beethoven in replacing Italian grace with a more emotionally charged range of expression, and starting in the 1840s Wagner will develop his dense, ever-changing key relationships, and his seemingly formless, immense constructions. As we approached the 20th century, in some circles there was concern that Wagner’s ten-lane highway was leading us over a cliff. In Russia (remember, this is White Russia), there was a general fear among theorists and composers that music was on the verge of an apocalypse (their word). One of those Russians was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). In his attempt to free himself from what he feared was becoming an impoverished style, he began to explore other possibilities. One of the products of his exploration was his opera Mozart and Salieri.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born into a family that was ennobled as far back as the Holy Roman Empire, thus the added descriptor, Rimsky, the Russian word for Roman. His lineage includes generations of military officers and high-ranking members of government, as well as one of Catherine the Great’s lovers. Rimsky-Korsakov’s grandfather, uncle, and older brother were admirals in the Imperial Russian Navy, and Nikolai followed in his brother’s footsteps. He entered the navy at age 12, when he enrolled in the Imperial School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in St. Petersburg. At 18 he entered active service as a midshipman.
As Rimsky-Korsakov began piano lessons at an early age, and was composing at the age of ten, his older brother, who was head of the naval academy, decided the boy should continue piano study, as their father thought it a better pastime than cards and booze. Rimsky-Korsakov quickly became a very enthusiastic music student under his inspiring and accomplished teacher, Feodor Kanille. Under Kanille’s tutelage, Rimsky-Korsakov composed several pieces and began work on his first symphony. His brother ended the music lessons when the boy was 17, as he was neglecting his academic studies. However, his teacher invited him to come over on Sundays to play duets and talk music. On one of those occasions, Kanille introduced him to Mili Balakirev, who was the conductor of a symphony orchestra and the driving force in a group of young composers who, with him, were championing a Russian nationalist school of composition. This acquaintanceship would prove fortuitous when Rimsky-Korsakov returned from his first naval assignment.
Midshipman Rimsky-Korsakov sailed the world for nearly three years. He collected music scores whenever in port and acquired a piano. He also bought Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Instrumentation and Orchestration, which he all but memorized during the long nights, as he wasn’t playing cards and drinking with the guys.
Back in St. Petersburg in 1865, and assigned light clerical duties, he had time to join gatherings with Balakirev and his friends, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin, who would eventually become known as the Moguchaya Kuchka (The Mighty Handful, or just The Five). They were all between the ages of 21 and 32, and met to share their current compositions, evaluate each other’s work, and collaborate on projects. Their principal aim was to form a Russian nationalist style that would employ Russian folk music and avoid the influence of Western-conservatory training, which they felt robbed composers of their individuality and bled them of their national culture. This was a reaction against the First Viennese School, which included Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, among many lesser lights. Theirs was described as the international style, and it dominated European musical expression. Resenting European domination, and with a passion to establish a purely Russian musical tradition, the Moguchaya Kuchka leaped into the breach with no preparation at all.
Before 1862, when those who became known as the Big Five were beginning to compose, formal music education did not exist in Russia. Using their instincts, what little they actually knew, and what they could figure out among themselves, The Five gained a great deal of self-confidence. Then, in 1862, Anton Rubinstein established the first school of music in Russia. The Five did not enroll, but the youthful Tchaikovsky, an accomplished pianist working in St. Petersburg as a law clerk, did. He graduated in 1865, when Rubinstein established a second conservatory, in Moscow, of which Tchaikovsky joined the faculty. The Five did not.
Rimsky-Korsakov, with only piano lessons and his shipboard study of Berlioz, managed to complete his first symphony and Balakirev premiered it in St. Petersburg with his orchestra on New Year’s Eve of 1865; this established Rimsky-Korsakov’s local reputation as a renowned orchestrator. But even so, he was astonished when, in 1871, the St. Petersburg Conservatory invited him to join their faculty to teach composition and orchestration. On reading the syllabus, he became even more unsettled and contacted his friend Tchaikovsky for advice. Tchaikovsky, with his thorough conservatory training and success as a composer, advised Rimsky-Korsakov to study hard. Rimsky-Korsakov joined the faculty, and doggedly stayed ahead of the class by studying lesson after lesson, absorbing music jargon and the techniques of music composition. In his own words, “I became the conservatory’s best pupil.”
He would grow up to be Stravinsky’s composition teacher, as well as that of Glazunov, Respighi, and Prokofiev, to name only the most famous of his more than 250 students. He composed fifteen operas, fifteen works for orchestra (four of which—Scheherazade, Sadko, Capriccio Espagnol, and the Russian Easter Festival Overture—are well known in European concert halls), and many, many other pieces. He composed works for military band, art songs, sacred choral music, and chamber music, but we know little of his output in the U. S. other than Scheherazade and The Flight of the Bumblebee. One can be grateful that these days just about all of it can be found on YouTube, performed by European organizations.
Mozart and Salieri began life in 1830 as a short drama by Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin, seen in Russia as a reverential being, spoken of as the Russian Shakespeare, automatically brought a patina of genius to this work that demanded attention from the Russian public as well as its cultural thinkers. But before coming to Mozart and Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakov had a relationship with The Stone Guest, also by Pushkin, as, decades before, it was adapted by Alexander Dargomychsky as an opera. Dargomychsky asked Rimsky-Korsakov to orchestrate his score, and Rimsky-Korsakov was so fascinated by the work that he orchestrated it on three separate occasions. The Stone Guest also links to Mozart, as this is a name given to the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where Pushkin first encountered this concept.
When Rimsky-Korsakov made his opera adaptation of Mozart and Salieri in 1897, composers were questioning the quality, even the validity, of the way the music of their time was being composed. Rimsky-Korsakov was additionally goaded by the Tsar, who, agreeing with complaints that Rimsky-Korsakov’s recent compositions were boring, struck his newest opera from the list of works to be premièred at the Mariinsky Theatre. This was a wound. It was time for Rimsky-Korsakov to look more closely at his learned, and a bit dry, composition techniques. It was time for a change.
One of the areas where he thought he had lost some expressive power in his operas was the recitative (sung dialog). Introduced in Florence in the last decade of the 1500s, recitative is the invention that made opera possible, as it allowed speech to be rendered through music in a natural way (as opposed to song). Composing recitative is not easy and continues to be a challenge for composers even today. In Mozart and Salieri, Rimsky-Korsakov began to combine Dargomychsky’s approach with his own thinking about realism in music. It was an enormous success, in most circles. But perhaps the best decision Rimsky-Korsakov made was to retain, nearly word-for-word, Pushkin’s brilliant text.
Pushkin was exploring a range of emotions in his imagined scenario where Salieri, a very successful, established composer, faces an unparalleled musical genius in Mozart. Pushkin’s argument about God’s fairness in granting divine ability to an unworthy roué, requiring nothing in return—as opposed to refusing the prayers of a hard-working, self-sacrificing, dedicated suppliant—is still intriguing. How can God be so unjust?
Another of Pushkin’s arguments was that the effortless, God-given genius commanded by Mozart dwarfed the talents of all his contemporaries. Perfection fell from his fingers, seemingly without thought, without revision. Like rain from Heaven, it cost him nothing. Whereas Salieri was the most lauded living composer at the time, securely at the very pinnacle of worldly success. Work did cost him, frustrate him, exhaust him, and when faced with this twenty-something piano-playing whiz-kid who was taking the world by storm, threw up his hands in anguish.
Pushkin gives us only Mozart and Salieri in this little drama, and he keeps them before us not so very long, yet he is able to flesh out an established artist’s suffering in the presence of a gifted youth who is all grace and wit. While Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov allow Salieri to express his terrible fear of Mozart and his great disappointment in God, Mozart is mysterious, saying little of consequence, maintaining his cultured air of nonchalance. Salieri proclaims, Mozart, you are God! You don’t know it, but I know it! I know! Mozart responds, Bah! Maybe so, but my divinity’s hungry for dinner. Pushkin indicated specific points where music composed by Mozart is to be performed. His use of these specific pieces, and in these places, offers better insight than words. Mozart does offer unalloyed ease, but only briefly. He also calls up darker depths. He offers an excerpt from his Requiem. Despite Mozart’s God-given talent, he, too, suffers, but not from something so common as Envy.