Rimsky- Korsakov Presents a Fairytale: Scheherazade


I’ll keep things short sweet and too the point! I’d like to share a work by the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov entitled Scheherazade (Шехерезада ), or his Symphonic Suite Op. 35. Written during the winter of 1887, Scheherazade is considered one of Nikolai’s most popular works with it’s rich colors and clear sense of line. In my own orchestral experiences I was taught by my professor (who grew up in the soviet union) that this idea of musical fairytale is exactly what makes the composition so Russian in nature. For all the famine and suffering the peasants of Russia faced, the tradition of storytelling is what kept their culture alive through the rough patches. That, to me, is what makes Scheherazade beautiful.
About the story, Scheherazade comes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (A.K..A The Arabian Nights). Korsakov begins began his program notes in the premier with the opening lines:

“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 seriatum, 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.

In a nutshell this is the story. A barbaric and woman-hating Sultan has decided that each night he will take a new wife to bed and in the morning he will give the order for her to be beheaded. Scheherazade hears this story and decides that she will offer herself as the Sultan’s next bride to put an end to the slaying. She ignores her father’s very understandably desperate pleas to stay home. When she arrives she commences the marriage but as they prepare for bed Scheherazade stages a conversation with one of the servants in which she reveals that she is a world renowned storyteller. Eavesdropping, the sultan demands to hear one of her so called stories and so she obliges him. The Sultan becomes so enthralled by her abilities that he allows her to live one more night on the condition that she will share another story. One thousand and one stories later, the Sultan is a changed man who has seen the error of his ways. He proclaims his true love for his beloved Sultana, Scheherazade.
To play the role of Scheherazade, Korskov casts the orchestra’s concertmaster (solo violinist) with each movement containing the same winding and ethereal solo. Occasionally the violinist is accompanied by a counter melody in the solo cello or solo woodwind. Each movement is presented as one of the stories Scheherazade would tell. The first movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, is an introduction in which the lugubrious theme of the Sultan is contrasted by the violin solo. The orchestra plays a broad fanfare than begins to paint the picture of the orient that Korsakov was trying to achieve. The second movement, The Kalendar Prince, is a fantastic narrative where a kaleidoscope of ideas are explored. The third movement, The Young Prince and The Young Princess, is a love story with a dance presented first by the strings and then expanded/embellished by solos throughout the orchestra. Finally the last movement entitled Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman offers a triumphant conclusion and finally a peaceful decent into sleep by the star of the show, the narrator Scheherazade. Below I have included recordings of this lovely work of art. Please listen and enjoy!

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