- Rimsky-Korsakov and his World ed. by Marina Frolova-Walker
Musorgsky has a habit of upstaging Rimsky-Korsakov. His image just fits that bit better with Romantic notions of the genius composer: anarchic musical experimentation, populist sympathies, an untimely death. Rimsky-Korsakov, meanwhile, defected from the rebellious Kuchka to become one of the St Petersburg conservatory's most respectable professors, is best known for music dealing in fantasy, and lived a long, comfortable life. Sure enough, Musorgsky infiltrates every chapter of Rimsky-Korsakov and his World. But this time, the goal is to redress the balance. We find Rimsky-Korsakov portrayed as a composer of deep feeling; as an arch political commentator; and even as a suitable source of instruction for Soviet musicians. Indeed, it is quite rare for a collected volume to achieve such unity of intent as that found here. While Musorgsky, naturally, is not the focus, the authors throughout seek to enrich and enliven the current image of Rimsky-Korsakov—dare I say, to make him a little more Musorgskian.
This book, a companion to the 2018 Bard Music Festival, thus directs scholarly attention to a woefully neglected composer. As the editor Marina Frolova-Walker reminds us, he may be widely known for such concert staples as Sheherazade and 'The Flight of the Bumblebee', but Rimsky-Korsakov's music has resisted much in-depth analysis or contextualization. The book is heavily weighted towards opera—understandably so, considering he wrote fifteen of them. The other focus is his teaching, which made him a powerful force of influence. And almost all the chapters are concerned with the final stages of Rimsky-Korsakov's life, from the late 1890s onwards, and his afterlife in the first decades of the twentieth century. As such, he emerges as a man of the turn of the century, often struggling against modernity even as he shaped it.
Like other books in the Bard series, Rimsky-Korsakov and his World presents newly translated source material. This comes in the form of letters between Rimsky-Korsakov and the soprano Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel, edited by Frolova-Walker and translated by Jonathan Walker. The intimate correspondence betrays a warmth of character not normally associated with Rimsky-Korsakov. It also offers remarkable insights into his operatic writing around 1900. This period is known as one of experimentation, in which he dabbled in bel canto, opéra dialogué, and Wagnerism, as well as his more familiar fantastical style. What these letters reveal is how pivotal Zabela-Vrubel was amidst these shifts. Rimsky-Korsakov often chose opera subjects for their potential to feature Zabela, and he tweaked the vocal writing at her behest. Moreover, this correspondence indicates that Rimsky-Korsakov's adoration of Zabela at least partly inspired his post-Kuchkan understanding of opera, to borrow Frolova-Walker's phrasing, as 'a collaborative art between composers and singers' (p. 9). Voicing his frustrations at the critics' dismissal of The Tsar's Bride as being too voice-led, he writes in language that conveys just how highly he thought of Zabela's powers of performance: ' [the critics] can't grasp that the singing provides everything: dramatism, stage-worthiness—everything that's needed from an opera' (p. 28).
The section that follows takes on the challenge, set so often by Richard Taruskin, of thor-oughly dissecting Rimsky-Korsakov's music. Emily Frey puts forward a strong case for considering The Snow Maiden as something more than 'music-box exotica' (p. 87). As she has done before in articles on Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Musorgsky's Boris Godunov, Frey offers a refreshingly analytical approach to the field of opera and literature studies. Her argument is subtle. Being careful not to overstate Rimsky-Korsakov's activism, she suggests that this opera is couched in political thought, namely the fascination in the 'long 1870s' with [End Page 733] the folk commune as a potential societal model: a vision for the future based on an idealized past. She proposes through a deft examination of the...