Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

As ever with Russian composers, there is ample scope for cataloguing this man’s works under the wrong name.

In Cyrillic, we’re dealing with Николай Андреевич Римский-Корсаков -and the usual questions that need answering are 1) do we use the patronymic (the middle name); and 2) how do we most appropriately transliterate the outer two names?

Well, question 1 is swiftly answered: no. The reason? He doesn’t seem to have used it himself. Here’s a signature of his:

…which clearly shows he’s signing as ‘Nicolas Rimsky-Korssakow’, with no patronymic. The usual source of authority on these matters is, of course, The New Grove… which does ask for the patronymic: it’s in the same bold font as the rest of his name and it’s not in brackets, indicating it’s not optional. That means, on this rarest of occasions, the New Grove is wrong and common usage (and Nikolai’s own usage patterns) suggest the patronymic should not be used for ordinary cataloguing.

Question 2 is not so easily answered, though! As you’ve already seen, the man himself seems to have spelled his surname with a double-S and a final ‘w’, making the New Grove’s ‘Rimsky-Korsakov’ apparently “wrong”! Even more problematic is his use of an ‘s’ to end his first name and the fact that he’s using using a ‘c’ in his first name, resulting in ‘Nic’ rather than ‘Nik’. Here’s another signature that makes those spelling choices even more obvious:

So, we should at least start with the proposition that, if we pay attention to the man himself, his name should be spelled ‘Nicolas Rimsky-Korssakow’.

But, of course, no-one does that! So, instead, let us turn again to the New Grove. It insists on ‘Nikolay’, which is a vote for the ‘k’ that seems to be not in the original signature, but is a reasonable transliteration of the original к. However, the New Groves is also choosing to use a ‘y’ ending to that first name that is definitely not Rimsky’s own choice and is, besides, problematic. The correct pronunciation of the original Russian –ай ending should definitely end up with more of an ‘eye’ sound than an ‘a-ee’ one. In English, though, if you end anything in ‘-ay’, it’s going to sound more like ‘day’ than ‘die’.

Out of curiosity, I fetched my 1940 fourth edition of the old Groves and discovered the entry for Nicholaï Andreievich Rimsky-Korsakov -so, back in the 1940s, they were still insisting on the use of the patronymic, but were spelling the first name quite differently from our current options! The use of ‘ch’ in the first name is clearly an attempt to insist on a hard ‘-k’ sound in the middle of his name: these days, I think we’d tend to use a simple ‘-k’ to do that. Its rather peculiar choice of ending for the first name (including the use of an i with umlaut, which is not a usual part of English orthography), is nevertheless clearly hinting at a diphthong that sounds more like ‘i-ee’ than ‘ay-ee’, which seems to match the original Cyrillic quite well.

Cutting to the chase, then: “Rimsky-Korsakov’ is the surname everyone pretty much agrees on today, regardless of how the man might have signed it for a 19th Century autograph hunter. But there is conflict over his first name. It can be ‘Nikolay’ if you follow the New Groves (or, indeed, the Encyclopedia Britannica), or ‘Nikolai’ if you follow pretty much anyone else these days. Everyone today at least seems agreed on using the ‘Nik’ form rather than the ‘Nic’ one, anyway, whatever they may have thought appropriate back in 1940. So the conflict really boils down to using ‘-ay’ or ‘-ai’ as the ending syllable. In my view, ‘-ay’ encourages a pronounciation that is clearly at odds with the original Cyrillic: -ay-ee rather than the more correct -i-ee.

For whatever it’s worth, both Wikipedia and the majority of users at Last.fm use the ‘Nikolai’ form. In these pages, too, I’ve made the rare decision to ignore the New Groves, because I think they’re wrong about the patronymic usage and incorrect about the way the first name is supposed to sound. Here, then, it’s definitely Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Your mileage can justifiably vary -but if you follow the New Groves on this, your catalogue data will, on this specific occasion, look rather old-fashioned (and I think you’re liable to pronounce his name incorrectly!)

Spelling of his name aside, he was one of 19th Century Russia’s greatest orchestrators and the leading light of the group of Russian composers called ‘The Five’. He was born in 1844 and died in 1908, in both cases very close St. Petersburg. He was, then, only 64 when he died: not greatly much older, in other words, than Benjamin Britten when he died. I mention this only because I’ve always had it in mind that he was of great Patriarchal age when he died: it’s probably the long-flowing beard that encourages that sort of thinking: but no Methuselah he!


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