Program Notes

These pages contain program notes written for Redwood Symphony. You are free to use the information in your own program notes. If you quote me directly, please attribute it. Thanks!

These notes were edited, amended, and otherwise improved by Eric Kujawsky, Peter Stahl, and Doug Wyatt.

Barbara Heninger

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Scheherazade

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