1863-1886: Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 3 in C major Op. 32, age 22

Mr. Peabody Says:

Start here: Allegro con spirito. It’s only six and a half minutes long. Or start here: Scherzo, also about 6.5 minutes. The Scherzo is in 5/4, VERY rare for a symphonic movement. He wrote the Scherzo at age 19 but was not finished with revising the rest with huge changes until 1886. So he spent 23 years, and the world continues to ignore this.

Two versions:

To get an idea how different versions are, compare these two: HERE and HERE. Just listen for about a minute. Eventually in both he gets to the same ideas, but they are also quite different, so different that at first I was quite confused about what I was listening to. That’s what happens when you reconsider your idea over 23 years.

2nd version: Yevgeny Svetlanov/USSR Symphony Orchestra (1886)

  1. 0:00 Moderato assai – Allegro – Un poco meno mosso – Allegro 14:36
  2. 14:36 Scherzo 6:47
  3. 21:28 Andante 9:50
  4. 29:58 Allegro con spirito 6:34 (End 38:40)


  • Piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (Bb, A), 2 bassoons
  • 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani
  • strings

This story is confusing:

Everything I’ve read says this was completed in 1873, but he wrote the scherzo in 1863, when he was only 19. So part of this was written in his teens, making it very early. However, he revised it in 1886, just two years before Scheherazade, and that was at the peak of his powers.

And that’s only the start of the story, because “revision” is really inaccurate. In his later version the 1st movement is a full three minutes longer, and it’s not just longer. It is very different, almost like a new composition. By 1886 he was an absolute master of orchestration. Without being intimately familiar with the whole symphony it’s impossible to see without scores everything that is different, and the whole matter is vexing because the 1873 score is not available.

1st version:

There are two versions: The 1st was written in the period 1863 – 1874. Rimsky-Korsakov made use of a Scherzo written in 1863 and a Trio composed during his honeymoon in Italy in 1872. In his reminiscences he recalled the difficulty he found in the composition of the first and third movements, which he modestly attributed to a lack of technique, as he strove to introduce more and more counterpoint into the texture of the work.

He finished the symphony on 18th February 1874, but performance in St. Petersburg was was a bomb. The newly acquired technical competence was praised with unusual warmth by Cesar Cui, but seemed to others too academic, a criticism echoed by Tchaikovsky after a Moscow performance under Nikolai Rubinstein.

2nd version:

He revised the symphony completely in 1886, two years after his first revision of the First Symphony, and the 1st movement is the most different. It is obviously reworked, and three minutes longer.

1st Movement:

The symphony starts with a slow introduction in which the theme of the following Allegro appears. The strong first subject leads to a much gentler second subject and a central development that introduces further drama, before the triumphant recapitulation, melting into the transposed second subject, leading to a final hushed ending.

There are a lot of unusual things here. First it is a massive movement, almost 15 minutes long, expanded in the revision. The slow intro goes all the way back to Haydn, but the extreme tempo change for the 2nd subject is very unusual. In fact, when Rimsky-Korsakov fooled around with traditional symphonic form, he was experimenting in precisely the way Tchaikovsky did. You will read that Rimsky-Korsakov was largely unschooled, and that Tchaikovsky was, but the difference in what they wrote does not reflect that idea at all, because they were both heading to the same place.

2nd Movement:

The unusual 5/4 meter of this second movement offers music of great rhythmic vitality and energy and masterly orchestral coloring, to which the Trio provides romantic melodic contrast. But more important: Tchaikovsky’s rather radical idea of doing the same thing in the 2nd movement of his last symphony happened 30 years later, and it’s impossible not to assume that this was not an accident, since both composers knew the music of each other very well.

3rd Movement:

The French horn introduces the third movement Andante, followed by other wind instruments and then the strings. The movement increases in tension to a dynamic climax, from which the clarinet leads to a further strongly romantic statement of the principal thematic material.

There is no clear ending, since it segues into the last movement, and in fact in most modern recordings on CD, there is a problem of a slight click in the transition. But that’s just another wonderful touch.

4th Movement:

The final Allegro con spirito brings about an element of cyclic unity in its re-use of the principal themes of the earlier movements, achieved with a technical assurance that is always evident and in a musical language of thoroughly Russian cast.

This idea of unifying themes in all movements was mostly non-existent in the time of Haydn, but Beethoven started doing it in 5th and 9th symphonies. Then Tchaikovsky and Franck used the same idea, so gradually this idea of unification of movements became more and more important.

2 thoughts on “1863-1886: Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 3 in C major Op. 32, age 22

  1. Hearing the backstory made it all the more interesting, and brings to light just how much goes into a composition. When I started listening, I had the uncanny feeling of Bach Invention 1 played with (counterpoint ofc) and then the layers kept piling on in exquisite complexity.

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