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.

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