Tchaikovsky was one of the first students to enrol at the Saint Petersburg Conservatoire after its foundation in 1862 by Anton Rubenstein, a westernised representative of Russian music who had trained in the German tradition and accorded only a relative importance to the ethnic music of his country. Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of The Five, a group of Slavophiles initiated by Balakirev, a conductor as charismatic as he was sectarian and dictatorial. Opposed to the academic teaching of music he believed that Russian music should be developed from the national legacy of Glinka, drawing only selectively on western models, (primarily Berlioz). However, Tchaikovsky, who always acknowledged his ethnic roots, was no less attached to thematic subjects and national folklore than his colleagues in the opposite camp; he widely demonstrated this in both the choice of his sources of inspiration and his use of folk melodies, which he easily combined with his Germanic, French and Italian grounding. There was no ostracism between himself and The Five. Music critic for diverse publications, he gave a favourable reception to Rimsky-Korsakov’s first symphonic works (First Symphony, Sadko, Serbian Fantasy), whilst noting, not without justification, some of their technical shortcomings: “There can be no doubt that this exceptionally talented man is destined to become one of the most admirable exponents of our art”, he concluded. On his side, Rimsky-Korsakov gradually became aware of the limits of the teaching received under the aegis of Balakirev, particularly after his appointment in 1871 as professor of composition and orchestration at the Conservatoire of Saint Petersburg, where he himself had never studied. He explained this with perfect candour in his Chronical of my Musical Life in which he enumerated the gaps in his knowledge in detail. He then undertook various exercises in counterpoint: fugues, canons and chorales with figured bass, which he sent to Tchaikovsky to correct. The latter replied to him with a beautiful letter showing his esteem: “I sincerely admire and bow down before your noble modesty as an artist and your astonishing strength of character. These countless exercises in counterpoint that you have written, the sixty fugues and the numerous other musical subtleties, all this is such an exploit for a man who, eight years ago, composed Sadko, that I would like to proclaim it before the whole world!” For the moment, the relationship between the two men seemed to be developing with perfect amity. At around the same period, Tchaikovsky seems to have become closer to his colleagues when his Second Symphony, The Little Russian, which quoted Ukrainian folk melodies, elicited their admiration. The 1870s were the years of Tchaikovsky’s period of intensely Russian inspiration: the Second Symphony was followed by the opera L’Opritchnik (1872) in which the action takes place during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (16th century) and the incidental music for Ostrovski’s play Snegurochka (1873) which Tchaikovsky laced with twenty symphonic and vocal numbers, featuring an abundance of folk melodies, a perfect masterpiece testifying to his genuine attachment to folklore and showing another facet of the work of a composer too unilaterally labelled as “pathetic”. However, a cloud was to darken the relationship between Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov when, seven years later, in 1880, the latter threw himself into a composition on the same theme and wrote an opera which he was always to consider as his most accomplished work… Whilst conserving a semblance of perfect courtesy to his colleague, Tchaikovsky vented his resentment in a letter to Jurgenson, his editor: “Is it not disagreeable to you too to know that our subject has been stolen, that Lel is to sing other music on the same text, and that something intimate and precious has been snatched from me and used in another arrangement. I am so vexed that I could cry”!
It is pointless to deny it: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegurochka clearly reflects the influence of its Tchaikovskian predecessor, and a comparison, number by number, is not always to the advantage of the opera over the incidental music.
From this point, as was "only too human", an embryonic rivalry developed between the two men, both of whom could pretend to the accolade of leading composer in the Russian pantheon. They did not contend on entirely the same territory and each had his own trump cards. Tchaikovsky, carried along by the patronage of Madame von Meck, quickly became a “media” personality, as we would say nowadays, initially at national level, then more and more on a European scale and beyond. The 1880s were to see him triumph first in Prague, where The Maid of Orleans was a resounding success; in France, where his works were published by the editor, Félix Mackar, and performed by Edouard Colonne’s orchestra and in Germany where he met Brahms and Grieg… In 1891, he crossed the Atlantic to inaugurate the Carnegie Hall; he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge… International renown was to come much later and more gradually for Rimsky-Korsakov. Although the twelve years Tchaikovsky spent teaching at the Conservatoire in Moscow (1866-1878) brought him the esteem of certain of the musical elite, in particular Serge Taneïev, they did not make him a leading composer of the Russian school: he did not have the stature, and teaching was burdensome to him. This did not prevent him from helping, with his habitual kindness, his juniors: Anton Arenski whose work he offered to programme in a concert instead of his own Romeo and Juliet – a really exceptional example of self-abnegation in favour of a colleague; and Rachmaninov whose opera Aleko he admired. Meanwhile, Rimsky-Korsakov, who, in addition to a teaching post in Saint Petersburg, was deputy director of the Imperial Chapel, with Balakirev at the helm once more, and who was soon to be appointed conductor of the Russian Symphony Concerts, only composed intermittently although he exercised considerable influence on dozens of students, an influence which was to extend well into the 20th century. Another difference that is far from negligible: politically, Tchaikovsky was a conservative and a monarchist and was soon to be presented at the court of the Tsar Alexander III who granted him a pension for life, and he would set poems by the Arch-Duke Konstantine Romanov to music. As for Rimsky-Korsakov, he steered clear of politics as long as his profession was not involved, but his position, however discrete it may have been, was clearly of another persuasion. It was only later, in 1905, that, taking up the defence of his students at the Conservatoire for having taken part in demonstrations, he found himself temporarily suspended from his duties before being reinstated when one of his students, Alexander Glazunov, took over as director of the establishment.Rimsky-Korsakov must have realised how much tension the Snegurochka affair had created between himself and Tchaikovsky and he waited until after his colleague’s death before taking up a subject that he had already used for an opera: Vakula the Smith, which in 1874 Tchaikovsky had adapted from Gogol’s Ukrainian tale, Christmas Eve, for a competition organised by the Russian Musical Society, which he won. Dissatisfied with the first version, Tchaikovsky reworked it in 1885 with the title Tcherevitchki (The Slippers or The Tsarina’s Slippers) though still not producing a masterpiece. “During Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, I could not have taken up the subject without causing him pain”, wrote Rimsky-Korsakov in his Chronicle, - a phrase as laconic as it was telling in ethical terms. Composed from 1894 to 1895, his opera Christmas Eve, a masterpiece still neglected in the West, is another testimony to Rimsky-Korsakov’s osmosis with supernatural themes linked to the cult of the season and the deities of Slavic paganism, an area in which he was much more at ease than Tchaikovsky. However, setting aside Snegurochka and Christmas Eve, to oppose the two composers through a comparison of their works, to favour one against the other, would be a completely sterile position, greatly in excess of the mutual umbrage their parallel lives may have caused.