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Film Music: The Neglected Art, August 2010

Ten years before Rimsky-Korsakov undertook teaching at St Petersburg Conservatory and still in Cadet School he undertook the writing of his first symphony, with the guidance of Balakirev. “The introduction and the exposition of the subjects (up to the development) were subjected to considerable criticism by Balakirev” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his autobiography My Musical Life. The second movement is a folk-song “On the Tartar Captivity” provided by his teacher and mentor. In 1865 when he was transferred to a life in St. Petersburg he finally completed it having worked for a total of four years on his first opus and it premiered at the Free Music School in 1865 by Balakirev in the original key of E Flat Minor. Had this version been performed one could certainly be impressed with work from a 17 year old. However, this version is seldom performed and what we hear today, is a revision from 20 years later in a more manageable key of E Minor, from 1884. While Rimsky-Korsakov considered it a student piece it was still published by Bessel’s firm. To my knowledge there is no known recording of the work in E Flat Minor. With the additional 20 years of experience Rimsky-Korsakov certainly put his orchestral techniques to good use and while it is not what one would call a great symphony it certainly has some merit.

Upon examination this is certainly a lot more mature work and while it really doesn’t have that Rimsky-Korsakov sound, likely way too early on in his career, it is certainly one worth exploring. As time went on his understanding of the brass section improved considerably as well as his use of counterpoint and a more complicated but listenable harmony. The Naxos recording 8.550811 couples it with his far more popular “Antar” symphony/symphonic suite and the pair are a nice combination for a CD. Couple this as always with the attractive price Naxos has to offer and you have a good choice.

The scherzo is really quite good melody, very upbeat and could easily be a nice stand alone work on its own. The other three movements in this symphony are extremely Russian sounding, stoic and solemn in nature so much so you couldn’t mistake it for any other country. If a movie producer wanted to use sections of this symphony as source material it would easily let one know what country you wanted to think of.


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