In 1905, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a prominent Russian composer and a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. When the 1905 Russian Revolution brought student demonstrations to the Conservatory, Rimsky-Korsakov was assigned to a committee charged with quelling the unrest. Instead, he sided with the students, declaring that they had the right to demonstrate. As a result, he was fired, and performances of his works were banned. But such was his reputation as a composer that the ban received national press attention, and a national outcry ensued. The ban was soon lifted, and Rimsky-Korsakov got his professorship back. He retired the following year, and died in 1908, before he could complete his masterpiece of musicology, Principles of Orchestration.
Rimsky-Korsakov is probably best known today for his magical Scheherazade suite, but his output included 15 operas and numerous other orchestral works. Incredibly, Rimsky-Korsakov had relatively little formal training in music. While preparing for a career in the Imperial Russian Navy, he took piano lessons, which he disliked, but his teacher recognized Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical talent and urged him to learn composition. Rimsky-Korsakov was entranced. By the time he was 27, he was a professor of composition and orchestration at the Conservatory — a part-time job, as he was still on active duty with the navy.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s years of teaching and practicing orchestral composition — as well as his membership in “The Five” (with fellow composers Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev, and Cui) — gave him a keen sense of the power of orchestration. He became a master of color, texture, and mood, even though he knew little about music theory. He continued to teach himself as he went along, and ultimately his experience as a teacher made him, as he put it, the Conservatory’s best pupil. His desire to share what he had learned led him to begin writing Principles of Orchestration in 1873.
At his death 35 years later, it was still incomplete. At times, his attention was focused on composition, health problems, and family tragedies, and he laid the draft aside. Other times, he had crises of confidence, believing that the subject was too massive for him to treat successfully. Luckily, he left copious drafts and notes, and his protégé and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, was able to cobble them together into an invaluable treatise, first published in English in 1922, that remains an essential reference for composers and orchestrators.
The main text in Volume I is relatively brief — just 152 pages in the English translation, with demonstrative music snippets throughout — but Volume II contains over 300 orchestral examples drawn from a wide variety of Rimsky-Korsakov’s works. These beautifully demonstrate his fundamental belief that “good orchestration means proper handling of parts.” He advocated simplicity in scoring for individual instruments, which, when artfully combined, would result in “brilliance and imaginative quality in orchestral tone coloring.”
The version of Principles of Orchestration that we produced at DP tries to bring that quality to life with mp3 sound files linked to the orchestral examples. These were transcribed by hand with music notation software that employs actual instrument sounds. While no computer-produced sound can ever replace the warmth of actual human performance, it is hoped that these sound files will give the reader at least a glimpse into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own brilliance and imagination.