Johann Straus II - Vergnügungszug (Pleasure Train), op. 281

Johann Strauss II , known for his waltzes and lively compositions, had a unique approach to his creative process. He consistently sought contemporary and relevant themes to serve as the driving force behind his new musical compositions. This approach ensured that his work remained fresh and connected with the audiences of his time.  One notable instance of this creative approach was the composition of this polka, composed in 1864. This piece of music was specifically crafted for a summer concert held in the picturesque Russian town of Pavlovsk. It's fascinating to note that Strauss drew inspiration for this composition from the world around him. In this case, he found it in the emerging technology of the time, namely, the steam locomotive. The composition itself is a testament to Strauss's ability to capture the essence and energy of the subject matter. The rhythm of this dance piece mirrors the rhythmic chugging and movements of the old-fashioned steam trains that were prevale

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The composer sailor

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born on March 18, 1844, in the small town of Tikhvin, 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Saint Petersburg, near Novgorod, in northwestern Russia. He was the second son of an already 60-year-old retired civil servant Andrei and his second wife Sofya.

From a very young age Nikolai wanted to be a sailor - like his uncle and his brother Voin, 22 years older than him. His parents, however, instilled in him a love of music from his two years of age and only the limited musical environment of his provincial hometown threw the weight of the scales towards the side of his naval career.

Rimsky-Korsakov's mother, 
Sofya Vasilievna
Nikolai continued his piano lessons after his admission to the St. Petersburg Naval Cadet School in 1856, at the age of 12. However, only three years later, when he started piano lessons with the talented Théodore Canillé, he became interested in music.

In 1861, Canillé introduced Rimsky-Korsakov to the young but famous Russian composers, Modest Mussorgsky and Mily Balakirev - the latter helping the young man to his first symphony. Nikolai had already attempted his first steps in composition and orchestration, but secretly, since he had never been formally taught these subjects and did not even know the names of the chords.

Rimsky-Korsakov's true hero was Mikhail Glinka, the first who truly composed Russian music, who had died in 1857. Although Nikolai loved the great classics, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, he was in love with the folk songs of his homeland that Glinka incorporated into his music.

Mission to the sea

Nikolai's musical career, however, ceased for a while, when in 1862 he graduated from the school with the rank of cadet flag bearer. He was sent to naval exercises for almost three years. At first he regretted leaving his musical friends but then he was absorbed by the prospect of the sailor's life.

The Russian military clipper Almaz in New York
Harbor in 1863. Rimsky-Korsakov served as a
midshipman on this ship and later wrote
about this cruise.
When his ship, the "Almaz", docked in England for four months to refuel, Rimsky-Korsakov took the opportunity to continue the composition of his first symphony. He was encouraged by enthusiastic letters from Balakirev and overcame the lack of piano on board, composing in The Gravesend's restaurants.

But this creative period was short. Almaz was sent to America to block British ships in the Atlantic in case of war because of the recent Polish uprising.

During the alert in America, Rimsky-Korsakov spent time on land with other fellow sailors and enjoyed attractions such as Niagara Falls. He also participated in traditional naval entertainments with food, drink and women and claimed that music was second to none compared to the pleasures of his life as a naval cadet.

Back home

When he returned to Russia in 1856, Rimsky-Korsakov renewed his friendship with Balakirev, who now ran his own Free School of Music in St. Petersburg. Being back in the musical environment, Rimsky-Korsakov felt his old interest waking up and completed his Symphony No.1 in E-flat minor in time, to be presented for the first time on December 31st of that year. The audience enjoyed the music and greeted Rimsky-Korsakov with enthusiastic applause. At the time of his 21 years, the composer displayed an impressive and romantic figure in the uniform of the naval cadet.
Modest Mussorgsky

For a man who comfortably accepted that his knowledge of music theory was practically non-existent, Rimsky-Korsakov was lucky to be appointed professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. He always managed to be a little ahead of his students by studying secretly!

That same year, he moved in with Mussorgsky. They often organized musical evenings that proved very popular among musicians. It was on such a night that he met 20-year-old Nedezda Cigargold, an already accomplished pianist. They married on July 12, 1872, to best man, his old friend Musorgski.

Rimsky-Korsakov left the Navy in 1873, but the Minister of the Navy created the position of Inspector of the Naval Band specifically for him so that he could have a good salary. His duties sent him away from Russia and it was during his visit to Crimea that he first met Eastern music, which influenced many of his following works.

Positions of influence

Although he traveled a lot, Rimsky-Korsakov helped run the Free School of Music and became its director from 1874 to 1881. He spent his free time studying folk songs. Increasingly his music acquired an authentic Russian aroma and he became the greatest composer of his country. In 1883 he was offered the prominent position of Assistant Director in the Imperial Chapel of the new Tsar Alexander III, with a great salary.

Mily Balakirev
Rimsky-Korsakov enjoyed what appeared to be an unlimited period of success. His six children were his main occupation at home and he liked to spend his holidays in resorts of untold beauty that inspired him to write. But the clouds of misery appeared very quickly on the horizon.

In 1890 his wife and son Andrei suffered diphtheria, his mother and youngest son died and his second son suffered from a disease that proved fatal. His relationship with Balakirev was also in crisis and as a result of all this came the nervous breakdown. His willingness to compose had completely disappeared.

Only the obligation to conduct a concert for Tchaikovsky, who died in 1893, brought Rimsky-Korsakov back from depression. He devoted himself to opera and songwriting always dominated by the Russian aroma that overwhelmed Europe like a storm.

The Rebel

Even his temporary release from the St. Petersburg Conservatory - because he supported student political protest - failed to diminish his popularity. A ban on his music ensured his everlasting popularity.
The grave of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
at the Tikhvin Cemetery in St. Petersburg

He was working at the opera The Golden Cockerel, which was meant to be his last, when he fell ill from angina. 

He recovered after several seizures in March 1908 but on the night of June 20-21 after a violent storm, he suffered the fatal crash at his home in Ljubensk.

In his work, Rimsky-Korsakov brought the imagination and legends to life. 

His pure resourcefulness and ability to fascinate him have made him one of the most beloved and famous Russian composers to date.