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“The Maid of Pskov:” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s First Opera

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(This post was written by Elizabeth Penn, intern, European Reading Room)

In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Library of Congress acquired a collection of books from Israel Perlstein, a prominent dealer of rare books and antiques. These books were unique as they originally belonged to the Russian imperial family, the Romanovs. At the Library, it is known as the Russian Imperial Collection. Overall, it contains about 2,800 items that were part of the Romanovs’ personal libraries. Genres covered in the collection are diverse, including children’s literature, law, religion, and even music scores. In fact, 155 titles from the collection are now housed within the Library’s Music Division. One of these pieces is an 1892 edition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera, “The Maid of Pskov” (Псковитя́нка, Pskovityanka).

Cover of score, cast of characters, and part of the score of “Pskovitianka” (The Maid of Pskov). The book seal is that of Tsar Nicholas II Alexandrovich (son of Tsar Alexander III). The sideways “H” is the Russian alphabet “N.” The A stands for Alexandrovich. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, “Pskovitianka. Opera v 3-kh dieistviiakh, 1892.”

First, a brief overview should be given of the composer’s remarkable life. Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 in Tikhvin, Russia into an established gentry family known for its service in the navy. He was the second son, arriving 22 years after his older brother, Voin, was born. His father was a successful civil servant who had retired by the time Rimsky-Korsakov joined the family. As with most children of well-to-do Russian families, Rimsky-Korsakov’s childhood education included music lessons, with the future composer starting on the piano at the age of six. Although a strong passion for classical music was not immediate, Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrated considerable interest in church and folk music, his maternal grandmother having been born into serfdom. He wrote his first original compositions at the age of eleven.

At the age of twelve, Rimsky-Korsakov seemingly fulfilled his family legacy by enrolling at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. It was there, however, that he truly fell in love with music. In the rich cultural atmosphere of Russia’s then-capital city, the impressionable Rimsky-Korsakov was exposed to the famed operas of Mikhail Glinka and the immortal melodies of Beethoven and Mozart. In 1859, Rimsky-Korsakov began to take music up more seriously under the tutelage of the pianist, Fedor Kanille. A year before his graduation from the naval academy, Rimsky-Korsakov met Mily Balakirev, a decision that would prove meaningful for both.

Views of St. Petersburg. Clockwise from top left. The Admiralty Palace; Dvortsovyi Bridge and Admiralty Quay; Nevskii prospekt and the Admiralty; Admiralty and War Offices. Photochrom prints. Detroit Publishing Co., between ca. 1890 to 1900.

Following his graduation from the Naval Academy in 1862, Rimsky-Korsakov entered service on the clipper “Almaz.” During his three-year tour on the ship, Rimsky-Korsakov had the opportunity to travel the world, visiting Brazil, the United States and England. Although busy with his maritime duties, Rimsky-Korsakov continued to work on his first symphony. This time at sea left an indelible mark on the composer. He would later become famous for featuring nautical themes in his works, including the ocean in “Scheherazade” (1888), and the lake in “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” (1907).

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

After completing his service in 1865, Rimsky-Korsakov returned to music and began composing with his mentor, Balakirev. Balakirev’s mentorship would lead Rimsky-Korsakov on the path to joining an influential group known as the Five (Могучая куча). The Five were Russian musicians united to create a national school of music that celebrated the country’s unique folk heritage. These Romantic-era musicians included Mily Balakirev (1836-1910), César Cui (1835-18), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81), Alexander Borodin (1833-87), and Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov’s commitment to the Five is reflected in his dedication of “The Maid of Pskov” to the group’s members as well as his numerous collaborations with them on other projects. In 1871, Rimsky-Korsakov became a professor at the prestigious St. Petersburg Conservatory. Three years later, he started a successful career as a conductor. His remarkable musical skills are often attributed to synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a sense-impression of one kind associates with that of another. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s case, he apparently saw musical keys in color.

In the West, Rimsky-Korsakov is popular for the symphonic suite “Scheherazade” and the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” an interlude from his opera “The Tale of Tsar Saltan.” This was, in fact, an exceptional period for Russian music, with composers producing music that is still performed today.

Ida Rubinstein in a studio portrait, ca. 1910, in her costume for Zobeide in Scheherazade.
Music by Rimsky-Korsakov, choreography by Michel Fokine.

As he got older, Rimsky-Korsakov became a sought-after mentor to other aspiring musicians, teaching hundreds of future composers, conductors and scholars. Two of his most notable pupils include Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Following a burst of creativity in the 1890s that produced a string of new operas, Rimsky-Korsakov continued working almost to the end of his life in 1908.

Turning back to Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera, “The Maid of Pskov,” the work represents an arduous creative process that stayed with the composer well after it first premiered. Inspired by a play of the same name by the writer, Lev Mey, the opera was initially composed between the years of 1868-72. It premiered in St. Petersburg in 1873 at the famous Mariinsky Theatre. Before its premiere, however, the opera faced heavy censorship from the Imperial government. According to the censor, it was potentially dangerous to portray the free republic of Pskov and its veche, or popular assembly. Also, Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) had previously created a ukase, or proclamation, that did not permit members of the Romanov family to be portrayed in operas. Rimsky-Korsakov only managed to add Tsar Ivan IV (otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible) as a character through some behind-the-scenes scheming on his part, and the protection of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the second son of the Tsar.

Women of Pskov in national costume. From “La Russie historique, monumentale, et pittoresque, 1862-65,” p. 31.
Ivan the Terrible. From “La Russie historique, monumentale, et pittoresque, 1862-65,” p. 21.

The “Maid of Pskov” illustrates Rimsky-Korsakov’s fascination with Russian history as well as Russian folk motifs. The opera relates the story of how the once independent republic of Pskov became incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It is set in the year 1570 during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV. The tsar arrives in Pskov only to discover that one of its residents, Olga, is his long-lost daughter. Elated by this discovery, the tsar wishes for her to return with him to Moscow. A rebellion against Ivan, however, quickly breaks out in Pskov and Olga is tragically caught in the crossfire, symbolizing the death of the free republic. Rimsky-Korsakov’s efforts to include Ivan IV in the opera paid off. The role became so iconic (thanks in large part to the role’s memorable interpretation by the famed opera singer, Fedor Chaliapin, in the 1898 production) that Sergei Diaghilev renamed the opera “Ivan the Terrible” when it premiered in Paris in 1909. Although the initial critical reaction was mixed, the opera left a powerful impression on audiences, especially students who appreciated its liberal sentiments. Striving for perfection, Rimsky-Korsakov revised the opera twice (in 1876-77 and 1891-2), adding new scenes and a prologue. Although it is not Rimsky-Korsakov’s most famous opera, it remains a powerful work, incorporating delightful folk melodies of the region and presenting a nuanced portrayal of one of the most infamous tsars.

The Music Division holds many more items from the Russian Imperial Collection with an excellent finding aid. To search for more items from the Russian Imperial Collection held across the Library, use the term “Russian Imperial Collection (Library of Congress)” in the Library’s catalog.


Gerald Abraham. “Rimsky-Korsakov: A Short Biography.” New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Marina Frolova-Walker, ed. “Rimsky-Korsakov and His World.”  Princeton University Press, 2018.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Judah Joffe, transl. “My Musical Life.” Ernst Eulenburg Ltd, 1974.

__________. “Pskovitianka. Opera v 3-kh dieistviiakh.” 1892.

Tatiana Rimsky-Korsakov. Lilia Timofeeva, transl. “Rimsky-Korsakov: Letters to His Family and Friends.” Amadeus Press, 2016.

Audio recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music available online through the Library of Congress.

For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.


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Comments (4)

  1. A fascinating piece on a fascinating composer and one of his lesser-known works! Thank you!

  2. Thank you for this informative and rich piece that gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of a true musical genius. I love the details about how he turned all aspects of his life into inspiration for his music, and how an atypical mind can often be an avenue for vivid artistic creation.

  3. There is at least one major error in this article. Ivan IV was not a Romanov. The Romanov dynasty was established in 1613, when Mikhail Romanov was named tsar. Ivan lV was from the Rurik dynasty which became extinct with the death of his son, Feodor. A period known as the “Time of Troubles” followed. Boris Gudonov was. Tsar during this period. This information is well known to anyone with even a casual knowledge of Russian history, so I’m left wondering whether other information in this piece, at least in the part focused on “The Maid of Pskov” is accurate. I’m not an expert but as far as I know this is the author’s only significant error.

  4. While it is true that Ivan the Terrible was of the Rurik dynasty, he was connected to the Romanov family by marriage. His first wife was Anastasiia Romanova Zakhar’ina-IUr’eva and she was the mother of his two eldest sons. In this sense he was part of the Romanov family. Admittedly, this is not clear in the post. Thank you for bringing this lack of clarity to our attention.

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