“A talented pupil needs so little; it is so simple to show him everything needed in harmony and counterpoint to set him on his feet in that work, it is so simple to direct him in understanding the forms of composition, if one goes about it the right way.” Sadly, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov had ceased writing his Chronicle by the time he came to teach Igor Stravinsky but there is every indication that he regarded the young Igor as a star pupil.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1897) and Igor Stravinsky (1910)
© Public domain

Stravinsky also regarded Rimsky as something of a father figure after his own father, Fyodor (a bass singer at the Mariinsky) died in 1902. “He had my deep affection, and I was genuinely attached to him,” wrote Stravinsky. “It seems that these sentiments were reciprocated, but it was only later that I learned so from his family. His characteristic reserve had never allowed him to make any sort of display of his feelings.”

Stravinsky’s early works were composed during his time studying with Rimsky, but how much can one detect the master’s fingerprints on his pupil’s scores? Russian conductors Vasily Petrenko and Vladimir Jurowski shared their thoughts with me on this master–pupil relationship.

Vasily Petrenko
© Svetlana Tarlova

“You hear Rimsky-Korsakov undeniably in all the early works, including The Rite of Spring,” declares Jurowski. “In particular I would mention the Symphony in E flat, Funeral Song and, of course, The Firebird” while Petrenko would include “almost everything before his neoclassical period”.

So what did Stravinsky learn from Rimsky and where can one hear this in his music? “In late Rimsky,” says Petrenko, “you feel the complexity of the language and the complexity of the harmonic structure which were, in fact, created from simple patterns, a lot related to folklore and folk melodies and harmonies, when one three-tone chord is placed above another three-tone chord but they are from different keys – say D minor and A flat major – and this creates a tension between the harmonies. This is what Stravinsky used a lot. If you look at the Berceuse in Firebird, there are two different keys used simultaneously. They’re quite simple keys and quite simple harmonisations, however put together on the vertical split they make a complexity and dissonance. Or the opening to Part 2 of Sacre where it sounds very contemporary but in fact these are two simple chords one on top of the other.”

“Rimsky’s influence springs from two main elements,” explains Jurowski, “the orchestral colours deployed and the way Stravinsky uses instrumentation and textures, and the usage of specific harmonic modes (like the octatonic scale for instance) – this combination means that the listener feels the influence both on the ‘surface display’ of the music, but also in the structure underneath, so the connection is almost impossible to ‘hear around’.”

Petrenko cites Rimsky’s late operas as a particular influence, particularly when it comes to orchestration. “Listen to the Queen of Shemakha’s music in The Golden Cockerel where Rimsky counterpoints very low instruments like double basses, tubas, trombones with very high-pitched violins, piccolo and oboes. This idea was enhanced by Stravinsky and, later on, by Shostakovich.”

Rimsky-Korsakov literally wrote the book when it came to orchestration. “To orchestrate is to create, and this cannot be taught,” he explained in the preface to his Principles of Orchestration. But although renowned for colourful orchestral colours, “there was never muddle,” Petrenko explains. “That’s something with Stravinsky as well, that clarity and transparency of the orchestration, some of it is very radical – for example Les Noces – but you can still clearly hear all the instruments, they never muddle each other.”

The Symphony in E flat major – Stravinsky’s official Op.1 – was dedicated to Rimsky, although he later recalled that he considered its orchestration “too heavy”. It’s possible to detect a lot of Alexander Glazunov in the symphony too, Rimsky’s first private pupil, who was almost certainly held up as an example of how to model symphonic formation. Its second movement even sounds like a fleet-footed Glazunov Scherzo.

Faun and Shepherdess, composed as a wedding present for his bride, Ekaterina Nosenko, in 1906, was the first work by Stravinsky to be performed in public. Stravinsky later claimed that the music is “never like Rimsky-Korsakov, which must have troubled that master” and that the work “irritated Rimsky’s conservatism” because “he found my use of whole-tone progressions suspiciously Debussy-ist”. But those whole tone progressions could have been lifted entirely from Rimsky’s opera Kastchei the Deathless!

The Scherzo fantastique (which Stravinsky called Bees because it was based on Maeterlinck’s La vie des abeilles) buzzes with the same ferocity as Rimsky’s famous Flight of the Bumble-bee, something that Stravinsky himself later acknowledged in his conversations with Robert Craft. “The harmony in Bees will be fierce like a toothache,” he wrote to Rimsky, “but should immediately alternate with agreeable harmony, like cocaine.” It was the last Stravinsky work composed during Rimsky’s lifetime. And who was in the audience at the 1909 premiere but the impresario Serge Diaghilev, urgently requiring a composer to orchestrate a couple of Chopin numbers for his ballet Les Sylphides, thus setting on course the Ballets russes chapter of Stravinsky’s career that would launch his fame.

Stravinsky’s tribute to Rimsky, the Funeral Song, was composed in the summer of 1908. It was performed at a memorial concert in January 1909, then disappeared without trace. Stravinsky described it as “the best of my works before The Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony”. In 2015, the orchestral parts were discovered in a St Petersburg library and it was given its modern premiere by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra in December 2016.

Jurowski gave the second UK performance. “I like the Funeral Song very much,” he explains, “and find it really moving though I wouldn't say it adds anything particularly new to what we already knew about Rimsky's or Stravinsky’s music from their ‘canonical works’. But it definitely confirms Rimsky's role as one of the important precursors to the Russian Modernist school, and it also shows that as a young man Stravinsky was definitely capable of a very direct, unashamed expression of his emotions, which is a feature he learned to disguise so well later in his life as he explored other stylistic roads. Here though the Funeral Song is certainly ‘heart on sleeve’.”

The juddering basses and sepulchral wind chords at the start of the Funeral Song almost place us in Kastchei’s magic garden in The Firebird, the ballet which shot Stravinsky to fame. There are certainly parallels between Firebird and Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel in terms of orchestral colouring here – Petrenko has paired ballet and suite on disc.

Tamara Karsavina and Mikhail Fokine in The Firebird (1910)
© Public domain

Given how much he owed to Rimsky, it’s odd how, in later years, Stravinsky sought to distance himself from his teacher’s influence. “Stravinsky said many rather contradictory things in the course of his life,” Jurowski suggests. “I suppose it was his method of fencing off unwanted ‘interpretations’ of his works by the critics.”

For Petrenko, it marks a generational difference. “Through his life, Rimsky deserved the right to be radical and not be hammered by the critics. Stravinsky – and Prokofiev a few years later – set out to be radical from the very beginning. The art of composition which, in the 19th century was the art of evolution, became in the 20th century the art of revolution – in art as well as life!”

Vladimir Jurowski
© Matthias Creutziger

“Stravinsky also enjoyed ‘creating’ his own predecessors in a way,” states Jurowski, “to place himself in a particular tradition as he wanted it perceived. So although definitely and undoubtedly a product of the influence of Balakirev's "Mighty Five" school, he always preferred later on to present Tchaikovsky as more of an influential precursor, and then later on again he wanted to reflect himself through composers of Italian Baroque, in Mozart, Handel, Bach, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gesualdo etc.

“In any case, I do feel that in all of these scenarios he always ultimately remained very distinctly Igor Stravinsky – HIMSELF!! It is completely clear that from his studies with Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg he moved through a truly groundbreaking development as a person and musician, and because of that he preferred not to be seen chiefly as a product of a ‘localised’ late 19th-century national school, but as a true cosmopolitan – a Citizen and Composer of the World!”