1865: Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 1 in E minor (“The Young Sailor”), age 21

Mr. Peabody Says:

Make no mistake; you will read that this is an early work, but Rimsky-Korsakov did not finish with it until 1884, so the final version came at the height of his career. The ideas are young, but there is an absolute peak realization. Start with Scherzo. Vivace or Allegro assai, but the whole symphony is great.

Yevgeny Svetlanov/USSR Symphony Orchestra

  1. 0:00 Largo assai – Allegro 9:03
  2. 9:03 Andante tranquillo – C major 8:41
  3. 19:44 Scherzo. Vivace 4:56
  4. 24:40 Allegro assai 6:16 (End 31:37)


  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones
  • timpani
  • strings

Yet another amazing teen:

Rimsky-Korsakov was 17 when he started this music in 1861. His teacher, Balakirev, orchestrated the first page of the movement for him. Obviously he was a fast learner. Later in life he was known as a master of orchestration. Just think about Scheherazade, and that’s only one example of many.

While on a two-year-and-eight-month cruise aboard the clipper Almaz in late 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov completed and orchestrated three movements of this symphony, so those three movements were done by age 18. From that we know that he was just another amazing prodigy.

He composed the slow movement during a stop in England and mailed the score to Balakirev before going back to sea. His love of the sea was a huge part of his life.

In December, 1865,  Rimsky-Korsakov appeared on stage in his naval uniform to acknowledge the applause (regulations demanded that officers remain in uniform even when off-duty). Seeing him, the audience was surprised a naval officer had written such a work. Balakirev conducted the successful premiere of the symphony.

The young sailor:

Rimsky-Korsakov developed a poetic love for the sea before he ever saw an ocean.This encouraged the 12-year-old to join the Imperial Russian Navy. He studied at the School for Mathematical and Navigational Sciences in Saint Petersburg and at 18 took his final examination in April 1862.

Balakirev and Schumann influences:

As leader of “The Five”, Balakirev encouraged the use of Russian and Eastern themes and harmonies to set their “Russian” music apart from the German symphonism of the past. But the young composer admired Schumann, among others, and note that his movements look a lot like Beethoven’s.

The Five:

“The Five” were five prominent 19th-century Russian composers who worked together to create a distinct national style of classical music. They lived in Saint Petersburg, and collaborated from 1856 to 1870. Balakirev was the leader, but Borodin was the oldest. There was a range of 11 years between the oldest and youngest, who was Rimsky-Korsakov, who was probably the best of the group but who at first was rather intimidated by his older friends.

  1. Alexander Borodin (1833)
  2. César Cui (1835)
  3. Mily Balakirev – the leader – (1836)
  4. Modest Mussorgsky (1839)
  5. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844)

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, mentor

Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev  was born very late in 1836, and under the old Russian date-system he was born the 2nd of January, 1837. So in 1861, when Rimsky-Korsakov started this symphony at age 17, his teacher was only around 24 years old himself. It’s amazing how often great composers were mentored by teachers not much older than themselves.

The revision:

We do not hear today what the young composer wrote, because in 1884 Rimsky-Korsakov thoroughly revised this young work. He transposed the key of the symphony itself from Eb minor to E minor, to enable orchestras to play the work more easily than had previously been able and allow the work to become a repertory piece for student and amateur.


Because Rimsky-Korsakov used Russian folk and oriental melodies in his First Symphony, Vladimir Stasov and the other nationalists dubbed it the “First Russian Symphony”, even though Anton Rubinstein had written his Ocean Symphony a dozen years before it.

1 thought on “1865: Rimsky-Korsakov: Symphony No. 1 in E minor (“The Young Sailor”), age 21

  1. Listening during a brisk walk in suddenly cold weather (here) – it was a very pleasant listen. I was musing how the greats make everything seem so easy and “of course – how else?” while the less able make it seem difficult and not that pleasant but “my he must have worked hard”. R-K’s Young Sailor was “simply” enjoyable to listen to, start to finish, and I didn’t want it to stop.

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