Sakura Salon at Mondrago 10/20/13 Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade



This coming Sunday 10/20 at 7:30pm SLT Sakura will sponsor its first Salon in a while (due to my crazy RL).  This Salon will not be held at Sakura but in Mondrago, to support the anniversary celebrations going on there.   And in honor of Mondrago and it’s Magistrate, Erehwon Yoshikawa, the piece will be Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. 

Instead of posting my notes after the Salon, I have decided to post them beforehand.  Let me know if you have any comments.


Scheherazade, Op. 35, is a symphonic suite composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. Rimsky-Korsakov described Scheherazade as “an Oriental narrative of … varied fairy tale wonders.”

The literary inspiration for this orchestral masterpiece is a collection of folk tales from Egypt, India and Persia that includes stories dating back over 1,000 years. In 1704, French translator Antoine Galland began publishing the Tales of the Arabian Nights in a series of installments, which included the now well-known sagas of Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, and Aladdin and his magic lamp.

Before we talk about this work, does anyone know of the distinction between ‘program music’ and ‘absolute music’?

Quite simply, ‘program music’ is music inspired by a nonmusical idea, which is usually indicated in the title and sometimes by introductory remarks or even running comments in the score.  It has something non-musical that directs the listener a certain way in how they perceive the music.  By definition, most vocal or choral music with words is program music because the text itself provides, in varying degrees, a program.

‘Absolute music’ is music that is free of overt extramusical implications. Its comprehension depends solely on its musical structures, not on any narrative, pictorial, or other nonmusical ideas. Absolute music typically is identified not by a descriptive title but by the name of a musical form, such as symphony, sonata, quartet, concerto, invention, toccata, or fugue.

Therefore, Scheherazade is program music, and by way of explaining the title, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a brief introduction to be printed in the score and in the program for the work’s premiere:


“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, 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.”

Beyond that, Rimsky-Korsakov provided no specific “program,” and did not even affix titles to the respective movements.  The titles commonly used now were suggested to him by his colleague and student Anatoly Liadov; Rimsky accepted them at first, but later eliminated them from the score.  However, they have remained attached to the work ever since.

About the piece –   The first thing to remember is that the melodies were a 19th century Russian composer’s evocation of what was ‘Oriental’ (the term Oriental being used at the time as the Middle East, not the Far East) and not true Middle Eastern melodies or harmonies.  A true European Romantic orchestra was used, with western harmonies befitting the times.

However, a couple of things make this piece stand out musically.  At first, Rimsky-Korsakov was strictly an amateur composer, a naval officer with little formal musical training. Nevertheless, in 1871 his reputation for “ultra modern”(?) music brought an offer of the Professorship in Practical composition at St. Petersburg Conservatoire. He claimed that, at the time, he “could not harmonize a chorale, had never done any exercises in counterpoint, had no idea of strict fugue, and could not even name the chords and intervals.” More significantly, he knew little of instrumental techniques and capabilities. Still, he accepted, bluffing his way through, teaching himself one step ahead of his students, eventually becoming acknowledged as the finest composition teacher Russia had ever produced.

A couple of things that I love to listen for, so these are my opinions…..

  • Scheherazade has a rhythmic vitality often missing from other big orchestral pieces of the period, which were often overblown and melodramatic (in my opinion).
  • Rimsky-Korsakov taught himself orchestration, and became one of the masters of the art.  That mastery is on full display here.  Listen for the instrumental colors, and to how he weaves solo instruments throughout the work.  This piece, while lush, almost shimmers in its scoring.

Lastly, a note on one thing that really has enhanced my enjoyment of the piece, if you are into the programmatic nature of the piece.   When I was first introduced to this piece long ago, I took the titles of each piece and tried to hear how each movement told the story.   I liked it but was in some ways disappointed that, well to a teen, I couldn’t really hear the story as much as I would have liked given the nature of the piece.

Then I read that Rimsky-Korsakov took the titles out, and instead preferred to consider the work as a musical kaleidoscope of ‘Oriental’ images.  This would imply a non-narrative type of story – yet even here I began to disagree, at least that it is non-narrative.

Finally it hit me over the head.  There is a narrative here, but the story is not one of Sinbad, or the Kalendar Prince, or even an unnamed young prince and princess.  The story to listen for is that of a brave young woman, a master storyteller, using her mind and her charisma every evening to save her life and the lives of countless other women.  She mesmerizes, beguiles and seduces a stern Sultan every night using every means at her disposal.  We hear the stories as she weaves them in the marriage bed, we hear his reactions and her charm, until finally he – and us – fall under the spell of Scheherazade.


The first movement, titled The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, begins right away with the two themes that dominate all four sections of the suite and link them together.


The commanding theme that opens the work is the voice of the Sultan demanding his entertainment, followed by the sinuous solo violin melody that is Scheherazade herself as she begins her tales.  Scheherazade recedes, and a swaying melody enters in barcarole time on the strings, swelling like the sea. Brass accents occasionally cause the sea to crash and storm, and sweetly scored interludes suggest island dalliances, but the movement ends with a quiet depiction of what must be calm seas and steady wind.


The Story of the Kalender Prince concerns a prince who disguises himself as a beggar and searches for wisdom. His melancholy theme first appears in solo woodwinds, then enters the strings and quickens as the Prince sets out on his journey. Rimsky-Korsakov suggested that “one might see a fight” when a martial variant of the Sultan’s theme enters, surrounded by nervous string oscillations, while a later section with fluttering woodwinds and pizzicato string chords suggests “Sinbad’s mighty bird, the Roc.”


The voluptuous slow movement is a tale of The Young Prince and the Young Princess explores an unnamed Eastern palace; the Prince appears as a sensual, langorous string theme, the Princess as a relaxed arc of flute melody.


Nevertheless, the beginning of the fourth movement finds the Sultan in an irascible mood, and Scheherazade tries to appease him by describing the restless energy of The Festival at Baghdad. From there, the action moves out to The Sea, where the weather has worsened. Brass cry out, winds sweep up and down, and the music grows to a massive climax topped by a frightening bitonal crash depicting The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior. The storm subsides, and finally the themes of Scheherazade and the Sultan mingle, as the character of the Sultan is utterly transformed at the end of the work, from the unyielding sternness with which the sequence began to a warm expansiveness born of the thousand and one nights with his incomparable story-teller.