Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844. Several people from his family had careers in the Russian army and navy. Both his grandmothers, however, were simple people who had lived in the country. When he was young he showed a great interest in music. He sang every tune he heard and knew, without looking, the names of the notes that he heard being played on the piano. When he was six he started piano lessons. The opera Life for the Tsar by Glinka made a big impression on him. However, he wanted to join the navy, so in 1862 he entered the College of Naval Cadets, where his brother (who was 22 years older) was the director .

For much of his life, Rimsky-Korsakov combined his composition and teaching with a career in the Russian military—at first as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy , then as the civilian Inspector of Naval Bands. He wrote that he developed a passion for the ocean in childhood from reading books and hearing of his older brother's exploits in the navy. This love of the sea might have influenced him to write two of his best-known orchestral works, the musical tableau Sadko (not to be confused with his later opera of the same name ) and Scheherazade . Through his service as Inspector of Naval Bands, Rimsky-Korsakov expanded his knowledge of woodwind and brass playing, which enhanced his abilities in orchestration. He passed this knowledge to his students, and also posthumously through a textbook on orchestration that was completed by his son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg .

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