Hidden treasures at Rimsky-Korsakov museum

Lidia Ader
Jun 6, 2015 10:00AM

For many years now 28, Zagorodny Prospekt, a quiet corner of the historical centre of St Petersburg, has been the location of the Rimsky-Korsakov apartment museum.

The five-story building is surrounded with greenery and remote from the noise of the passing traffic, but in general it is unremarkable and very similar to many other apartment houses built in the then Russian capital in the 19th century. Professor Rimsky-Korsakov of the St Petersburg Conservatory Moved into an apartment here in the autumn of 1893 and spent the last 15 years of his life here, until his death in 1908.

After the 1917 revolution the composer’s widow, Nadezhda, was forced to leave the apartment and moved in with her son Andrei in early 1918. For a long time the apartment on Zagorodny Prospect served as a ‘kommunalka’, with ten families (over twenty people in total) living there for a long time.

Before she moved out, Nadezhda sorted and catalogued her husband’s manuscripts, music library, posters, programmes, photographs, treasured gifts, tributes and family heirlooms. This large collection later formed the basis of the museum. At the beginning of the 1920s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s children transferred the composer’s creative output to the Public Library’s Manuscript Department. The dream of setting up a museum only became a realistic idea in 1967 when a decision was taken by the state to found an apartment-museum, following the untiring efforts of three generations of Rimsky-Korsakovs for over fifty years. Major repairs were made to the whole building and the apartment restored. Inside there remained originaltiled corner stoves, an elegant marble fireplace, tall folding doors, and window fanlights with bronze handles and bolts. The patterns and colour of the original wallpaper were revealed underneath subsequent layers of wall coverings.

More than 250 items, carefully preserved by the composer’s family, were given to the museum and put back in their original places in the study, hall, drawing room and dining room. The completeness and authenticity of these rooms make the museum particularly invaluable. The other rooms in the apartment were renovated to create an exhibition room and concert halls in homage to the composer. 

On 27th December 1971 a museum was founded in memory of the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in his final St. Petersburg home.

The materials in the exhibition room give an idea of the diverse activities of Rimsky-Korsakov as composer, teacher and conductor. Various documents tell about his work at the Free Music School, Court Capella and the St. Petersburg Conservatoirewhere he was involved for thirty-seven years. The calibre of the composer’s students - Glazunov, Lyadov, Arensky, Grechaninov, Cherepnin, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky - attests to his gift for teaching.  The most precious exhibit is the ‘golden pen’, given to the composer in 1880 on the première of his opera May Night. From then on Rimsky-Korsakov used this pen to write all his compositions, letters, and his journal My Musical Life.

The last period of Rimsky-Korsakov’s life was his most creative. During this time he composed eleven of his fifteen operas, including Christmas Eve, Sadko, Mozart and Salieri, The Tsar’s Bride, Kaschey the Immortal, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, The Golden Cockerel, and over 40 romances. The composer’s study does not contain a piano: Rimsky-Korsakov usually worked at a writing desk, trusting his unique inner ear. At another desk would sit Nadezhda, faithful assistant in all her husband’s musical undertakings, making corrections and piano arrangements of his symphonic and operatic works. In her youth Nadezhda had herself composed music and was a brilliant pianist. 

Musical soirées would take place in the drawing room. By 1905 these had become such regular events as to be known as the “Korsakov Gatherings”. Despite there being no forward planning for these evenings, they always proved entertaining. Composers such as Glazunov, Lyadov, Stravinsky, Taneyev, Scriabin and Rachmaninov gave premières of their own works, and the singers Fyodor Shalyapin, Nadezhda Zabela-Vrubel and Yevgeniya Mravina performed, accompanied by Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife. A Becker piano, acquired by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902, now stands in the drawing room as it did then. The customary “Korsakov Gatherings” still take place to this day, with concertgoers attracted by the warm intimate atmosphere.

Of particular interest in the dining room are the portraits of Rimsky-Korsakov’s forebears,painted by unknown artists in the 18th to early 19th centuries. The composer belonged to an ancient noble family descended from Ventseslav Korsak, who came to Russia from Lithuania and whose progeny later russified their surname to ‘Korsakov’. In 1677 Tsar Fyodor Alekseyevich allowed a number of Korsakovs the highest concession of adding the prefix ‘Rimsky’ (meaning ‘Roman’ in Russian) to their surname, on the basis that their ancient forebears had been subjects of the Roman state. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to the fourteenth generation descended from Ventseslav Korsak and was the sixth descendant of the original Rimsky-Korsakov.

The museum’s intimate chamber concert hall is popular with both novice musicians and established performers. Thanks to its recently opened new concert hall on the ground floor, the museum now attracts large audiencesand has significantly increased its activities. 

Lidia Ader