Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

  1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
  2. The Kalendar Prince
  3. The Young Prince and the Young Princess
  4. Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman
Duration: 15'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013, 1994

In the wake of Glinka came a generation of Russian composers who redefined what Russian music was. The most revolutionary of them was the group of five composers led by Mily Balakirev, who became known as “the Mighty Handful”, or simply, “the Five”. In the 1860s this group of mostly amateur composers - Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, Borodin and Cui - developed a new aesthetic which celebrated the distinctive sounds of Russian folk-music and rejected what they saw as the overly Western European influenced teaching prevalent in the Conservatoires. Of the “Five”, Rimsky-Korsakov was probably the most accomplished. He was the only one other than Balakirev himself who made a living as a composer.

In 1871 he became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire.  Given the group’s hostility to the musical establishment, this naturally caused some fiction.  By this stage however the group had largely drifted apart.  Musorgsky died that year from alcoholism, while Cui developed a career as a critic and Borodin concentrated on his main career as a research chemist, working intermittently on an opera, Prince Igor, that remained incomplete at his death.  

In the 1870s and 80s Rimsky-Korsakov’s music evolved from the experimental style he had cultivated in the 1860s. His approach to orchestration especially developed from a sparse style to an extraordinary lush and rich one, full of exotic effects, which would prove hugely influential to the next generation, including his greatest pupil Stravinsky.  Two particular foreign influences were Liszt's symphonic poems, and the orchestral music of Berlioz.  From Liszt he learned a more adventurous harmony, and from Berlioz he took a much more adventurous approach to the orchestra. Berlioz’s innovative approach to orchestration was a revelation to many Russian composers of the period, and his Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes became required reading.  The flow of ideas between Russia and France would become more and more important through the latter part of the century. The culmination of this cross-fertilisation was the establishment of the Ballets Russes in Paris, whose first season in 1910 featured as its main attraction a ballet danced to Rimsky-Korsakv's orchestral suite Scheherazade.    

Scheherazade represents the height of this period of Rimsky-Korsakov’s output.  It was completed in summer 1888 and first performed in November that year.  It is a tour de force of orchestral writing, so much so that when Rimsky-Korsakov came to write his own manual of orchestration, many of the examples he included were taken from it.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s own programme note for the first performance is remarkable for its refusal to be drawn into the specifics of the suite’s programme: “The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim [i.e. with the conclusion held back until the next night], for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

“Many wondrous things were related to the Sultan Schariar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her tales she took verses from the poets and words from the songs of the people, and intermixed the former with the latter.”

He did not intend to portray specific tales, but rather an impression of the variety of folk stories to be found in the 1001 Nights.  In his memoirs, he recalls that his conception of Scheherazade was "an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet representing, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character."  It was his former pupil; and colleague Anatoly Lyadov who suggested the titles for each of the movements.  Rimsky-Korsakov at first acquiesced with these suggestions and even allowed them to be printed in the score, but later had them removed.  “I meant these hints to direct but slightly the listener's fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of the individual listener," hecrecalled. "All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”  Certain aspects of the music do nevertheless seem to represent particular ideas clearly: the terse opening theme seems to embody the sultan, while the solo violin that follows and recurs throughout the piece stands for Scheherazade herself.  

Whether the opening movement really does represent “the Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” is therefore a matter for the imagination of the listener, although there is a salt-flecked taste to it entirely in keeping with a composer whose younger years had been spent in the Russian Navy.  Likewise, the Tale of the Kalendar Prince (a fakir who turns out to be a nobleman in disguise).  The third movement meanwhile certainly has the feel of a romantic scene, even if it cannot really be tied too tightly to the Tale of Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur (“created so much alike that they might be taken for twins”).  

Lyadov’s proposed programme falls apart completely in the final movement, and conflates elements of several tales. Ironically, this perhaps reflects best Rimsky-Korsakov’s intention that Scheherazade be taken as a kaleidoscope of implied stories rather than any specific representation.  One very clear influence on this movement is Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Borodin had died only a year before and Rimsky had worked on completing and orchestrating his friend’s unfinished opera prior to composing Scheherazade.  What is clear by the end is that Scheherazade’s story-telling has saved her: in the closing moments we hear the sultan’s theme calmed by the solo violin.

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht

Duration: 30'
Publisher: Universal Edition
KSO performed: 2013 

Vienna in the 19th century may have been the centre of a large empire, but it was not so cosmopolitan as to grant all its inhabitants equal rights.  Since the seventeenth century the city’s Jewish population had been confined to the suburb of Leopoldstadt.  It was here that Samuel Schönberg, a shoemaker from what is now Hungary, lived when he came to Vienna in 1852.  By this time Jews enjoyed more freedom of movement following reforms implemented by the Emperor Joseph II in the late eighteenth century, and the accession of Franz Josef in 1848 accelerated the change.  In 1867 Jews were finally granted full citizenship rights.  One of the results of this was that over the next 40 years Vienna, which had long had a reputation as a staid and conservative city, became a centre of radical artistic and political activity. Few Viennese artists would prove as radical as Samuel’s son Arnold, who came into the world a full citizen of Austria-Hungary in 1874.

Arnold Schoenberg (as he would eventually spell his name when he moved to America in the 1930s) was his parents’ eldest surviving child. Music was part of his life from an early age, largely through the influence of his mother. Although she taught piano, the family did not own one themselves and so Schoenberg never mastered the instrument. Instead he learned the violin from nine years old, and later took up the cello (initially playing on a homemade instrument before he was able to acquire a proper one).

Schoenberg’s formal education was cut short at 15, when his father died suddenly.  As the eldest son, Schoenberg became the main breadwinner for the family and so had to leave school and take a job at a bank.  His appetite for learning was only intensified by this, and he continued to explore for himself, studying whatever scores he could lay his hands on, and gaining practical experience in “Polyhimnia”, a local amateur music society.  It was here that he met the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky was only three years older than him, but had all the formal education that Schoenberg lacked.  He took lessons with him, and so Zemlinsky became the only formal composition teacher that Schoenberg ever had.

Up until this point Schoenberg’s hero had been Brahms, but Zemlinsky introduced him to the work of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and these soon made their effect felt in his music.  His first major work, Verklärte Nacht [Transfigured Night] reflects these influences; its harmony is the rich, dense kind favoured by Wagner and Strauss, but it also betrays Schoenberg’s love of Brahms in its intricate textures, which rely less on block chords than on the interweaving of many lines.

In keeping with the fashion of the time, Verklärte Nacht is a tone-poem that takes as its model a poem of the same name by the modernist poet Richard Dehmel.  Where the piece is decidedly out of kilter is that rather than a lush orchestral piece, Schoenberg chose to cast the work as a string sextet.  It was only in 1917 that he rearranged it for string orchestra, with a few minor revisions made in 1943; the piece is now probably best known in this guise.  

Dehmel’s poem portrays a man and a woman walking in the woods at night.  The woman confesses that she is pregnant by another man; filled with longing for motherhood, she sinned with a stranger and now, having met her companion, is filled with regret and despair.  The man consoles her. The Universe shines brightly, he says; their love will transform the child as it has transformed him, and it will be born as his own. The night is transfigured, and they walk on through the moonlight.

These ideas of the transforming powers of love and faith held an acutely personal resonance for Schoenberg as he wrote the sextet over three weeks in 1899. He had just fallen in love with Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, who would become his first wife.  That year he also converted to the Lutheran church.  Converting to Christianity was common amongst Austrian Jews at this time, partly out of an enthusiasm for integrating with the culture of the empire which had now granted them full citizenship, but also for political reasons: Mahler famously became a Roman Catholic in order to be eligible for the role of director at the Vienna Court Opera House.  Schoenberg’s conversion seems to have been sincerely meant, although he would come to regret it.  Apart from the fact that Protestantism gave little advantage in a Roman Catholic country, the most prominent members of the faith at this time were increasingly vociferous anti-Semites.  Schoenberg would therefore never find the sense of belonging he sought in the church.  When the rise of the Nazis forced him into exile in the 1930s he returned to his Jewish faith.

Verklärte Nacht is nowadays known as the Schoenberg piece that even people who don’t like Schoenberg can get along with.  At the time of its first performance, however, it caused considerable consternation.  This was partly down to the subject matter: Dehmel’s poetry, and the aesthetic that underlay it was offensively liberal and explicit in its portrayal of sexualtiy, especially to a conservative culture such as still largely held sway in Vienna.  Beyond this, Schoenberg’s complex textures and advanced harmonies were met with a combination of incomprehension and disgust, a reaction he would have to get used to as his career took a course along rockier roads. As he observed in 1937, “As long as an audience is inclined not to like a piece of music, it does not matter whether there happen to be, besides some more or less rough parts, also smooth or even sweet ones. And so the first performance of my Verklärte Nacht ended in a riot and in actual fights. And not only did some persons in the audience utter their opinions with their fists, but critics also used their fists instead of their pens.”

Glinka: Overture, Ruslan and Lyudmila

Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Overture: Ruslan and Lyudmila 

Duration: 6'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013 

Glinka spent his early childhood in the care of his overprotective grandmother.  She kept him confined to a warm room, wrapped in furs and fed sweets.  The only music he heard was the sound of the local church bells, and the folk songs sung by passers-by.  When his grandmother died he was sent to live with his uncle, and it was here that he first heard an orchestra. Later, when he was sent to school in St Petersburg, he briefly took piano lessons with John Field, the Irish composer who invented the nocturne, and began to compose.

Upon leaving school his father decided that he should work for the Foreign Office, and Glinka duly found himself employed at the Department of Public Highways. The job was hardly taxing, and so he had plenty of time to compose.  The major turning point in his development came in 1830 when he travelled to Italy.  Hearing the Italian style that was being forged by composers such as Bellini and Donizetti, he determined to create a distinctive Russian music.  On his return to Russia he composed his first opera, A Life for the Tsar.  This proved to be a great success and Glinka was rewarded by the gift of a ring from the Tsar worth 4,000 Roubles, and more importantly a post as director of the Imperial Chapel Choir.  Shortly afterwards he began work on his second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila.

The poet who devised the plot of Ruslan and Lyudmila, Konstantin Bakhturin, did so by his own admission in a quarter of an hour while drunk.  It shows: dramatically the opera is a mess, and is rarely performed now outside Russia.  While the quality of the opera as a drama is suspect, however, the music Glinka produced for it though is some of his finest. It was the seed of a major transformation of Russian music undertaken by the next generation of Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov.

The rollicking overture has found an enduring place as a concert opener, and encapsulates the qualities that would prove so influential. It showcases Glinka’s dazzling deployment of the orchestra to full effect as well as his use of folk-derived thematic ideas.  The closing bars move beyond conventional Western harmony and melody with the introduction of a descending whole-tone scale.  This was the first time this had been heard in European music, but by the end of the century composers such as Debussy would make it a familiar sound. In the opera it stood as the theme of the evil dwarf Chernomor, who kidnaps Lyudmila; thereafter it became the standard Russian way to portray sorcery or villainy in music.