Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the most accomplished of a group of musicians
that championed the music of Russia over the Germanic compositions that had
previously been the fashion, following in the footsteps of musical nationalist
Mikhail Glinka. Dubbed by Russian critic Vladimir Stasov "the mighty handful"
(moguchaya kuchka), the group included Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui,
Modest Mussorgsky, and Mily Balakirev, their self-appointed leader. It was
Balakirev who encouraged young naval officer Rimsky-Korsakov, in 1861, to pursue
a career as a composer, though the latter had no formal training. The young man
responded by teaching himself orchestration and completing a first symphony (No.
1, 1865), a symphonic poem (Sadko, 1867), and an opera (The Maid of
Pskov, 1872) while still serving in the Navy.
He taught himself orchestration so well, in fact, that he later wrote a book,
The Principles of Orchestration, that is still in use today. This was
typical of the man, who possessed an undeniable native talent. In 1871 he became
a professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of music — and
then commenced studying the subject himself. His students over the years
included Glazunov, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky. Tchaikovsky, also influenced by
Balakirev's circle (see Romeo and Juliet notes) wrote to
Rimsky-Korsakov: "I am a mere artisan in music, but you will be an artist in
the fullest sense of the word."
Though the subject of Scheherazade is based on Arabian tales, the work
is still firmly Russian in its sensibilities and its flavor of "oriental"
sound. Rimsky-Korsakov himself wrote that the piece was not meant to be an exact
depiction of Scheherazade's stories, and titles of the movements are meant to
"direct but slightly the hearer's fancy on the path my own fancy traveled."
The piece exhibits his skill in varying orchestral color, using a standard
Brahmsian orchestra that has been augmented by piccolo, harp, and extra
percussion (snare and bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, and tam tam).
The tales of the Arabian Nights themselves were passed down through the
centuries by word of mouth; the oldest tales date to the 10th century. They were
brought to Europe in 1704 by Anotine Galland, who published several collections
of the stories. These included the now well-known sagas of Sinbad the Sailor,
Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and Aladdin and his magic lamp.
The story of Scheherazade provides the narrative thread between the tales,
and runs as follows: Scheherazade was the daughter of the grand vizier to Sultan
Shahriyar. The sultan's first wife had betrayed him, and in anger and grief he
not only executed her but vowed to marry a woman each night and kill her the
next morning. The sultan's cruel order was obeyed for three years, until
Scheherazade conceived a plan to stop him and convinced her father to offer her
as the sultan's next wife.
The clever girl talked the sultan into letting her sister spend the night
with them in the bridal chamber, and in the morning, as planned, Scheherazade's
sister begged her to tell a story. Scheherazade began one of the exciting tales
but stopped before the story ended, causing the sultan, who had listened as
well, to put off killing her until she could finish her story the next evening.
Scheherazade, of course, never finished her tales, but kept her husband
enthralled with story after story for 1,001 nights. By that time the pair had
produced three sons and the sultan, convinced of his wife's fidelity and
wisdom, revoked his death sentence.
The first movement, The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, opens with two
opposing themes: a stern and solemn tune dominated by the brass, and a sinuous
violin melody introduced by a woodwind choir. The former is the stern sultan;
the latter is Scheherazade, weaving her tales. Rimsky-Korsakov described the two
themes, which wind throughout all movements of the work, as "purely musical
material … Appearing as they do each time under different moods, the self-same
motives and themes correspond each time to different images, actions, and
pictures." In this movement, the themes ebb and flow over a third rocking
melody like the ocean's waves.
The Story of the Kalendar Prince — a royal prince who disguised himself
as a member of a tribe of wandering dervishes called Kalendars — features an
"oriental" melody played in turn by both the full orchestra and different
solo instruments, including bassoon, oboe, flute, and horn. The theme is offset
by a brisk martial tune introduced by the brass, which in turn is interrupted by
a clarinet solo that whirls like the dervishes of the title.
The lyric sweep of The Young Prince and the Young Princess is colored
by a rising and falling counterpoint from woodwinds, harp, or upper strings
against lower. Romantic melodies weave in and out, and the movement ends with a
series of rapid, quiet figures that seem to dance into the distance.
The solo violin of Scheherazade heralds the final movement, which bursts into
a vigorous dance accented by cymbal and tambourine, The Festival in Baghdad.
The dance becomes wilder, punctuated by snare and bass drum, and a brass fanfare
announces a return to some of the themes of Sinbad and The Sea. The music
rises and falls with the swell of the ocean until The Ship Goes to Pieces on
a Rock (the full title notes that the rock is "Surmounted by a Bronze
Warrior"). With a mighty crash, the music segues into a sweeping
recapitulation of the Sultan's theme from the first movement, which then
subsides as if the Sultan has been mollified. Scheherazade's violin ends the
tale on a series of harmonics over a broad, sustained chord.
February 11, 2001