Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Op. 35

by Max Derrickson

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov     (Born, 1844, Tithing, Russia; Died, 1908, Lubes, Russia)

Scheherazade, Op. 35
1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
2. The Story of the Calendar Prince
3. The Young Prince and the Young Princess
4. Festival inBaghdad; the Sea; the Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior (Shipwreck); Conclusion

As Russia sought to define its own national character in its arts and literature in the 19th Century, Orientalism, or Eastern influences, figured prominently.  But this should not be too much a surprise, as Russia’s vast expanses straddled both the Western World and the East from its very beginnings – the Caucuses were literally in their backyard – and from 1480 onwards, a marvelous adventure story of travels in the East by the Russian explorer Afanasy Nikitin, The Journey Beyond Three Seas, became the archetype of the classic Russian fairytale.  Thus, when Russia, like so many other European countries, began to search for their uniqueness, a hearty soulfulness of the East ran in their consciousness.  As for a national music, the Nationalist composers, known as the Mighty Fistful – Balakirev (the leader), Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Borodin – took their roles with devoted seriousness, and sometimes consciously and sometimes not, their Russian music contained Eastern influences.  Those influences were many – whole tone and pentatonic scales, fixated and unpredictable rhythms, lengthy melismas (wandering melodies), accelerated tempi, irregular phrasing, repeated notes, and lots of augmented and diminished intervals.  What was not Oriental in Russian music was the music of the Greek Orthodox Church, and Ukrainian and Jewish folkmusic – these also figured into the Nationalist’s music.

Consciously, Rimsky-Korsakov composed two Orientalist works, the first being his Symphony No. 2, “Antar,” in 1868, based on an Arabian hero-folktale.  His second foray, Scheherazade, 1888, was based on the extraordinary collection of Islamic stories, One Thousand Nights and a Night (otherwise known as the Arabian Nights) – a colossal compilation of Middle Eastern and South Asian folktales from the Islamic Golden Age (7th -13th C.).  Both works, but especially Scheherazade, are steeped in the musical characteristics listed above.  But whether a listener can identify readily any Oriental influences in Scheherazade or not, the magical charm of Rimsky-Korsakov’s creativity speaks in its own language, and it is undeniably one of the most wonderfully loved works in Western literature.

Scheherazade is fashioned on the model of a symphony, where the major tunes in the first movement are the basic seeds of the thematic tunes in the rest of the movements.  The first follows roughly the sonata form of most symphonies, the second movement a scherzo, the third a hybrid song form and the fourth a rousing finale.  Its concept and structure play between narrative tone poem and symphony, and, as Rimsky-Korsakov explained, there was no absolute program to the music, except to give subtitles as to allow the listener to know that there was a definite intention of including Oriental influences in his Symphonic sketch.  His programmatic inspirations from the Arabian Nights, however, are clear and unmistakable.

The Arabian Nights is a masterful collection of stories upon stories, told by multiple authors who tell their own tales, and sometimes others’ tales, all revolving around one “frame story,” or anchoring narrative and narrator.  The Canterbury Tales is a similar collection.  In the Arabian Nights, the frame story involves King Shahryar of roughly the 7th Century.  When he learns that not only has his brother’s wife been unfaithful (and subsequently executed), but also his own wife faithless, he executes her and swears a deadly oath:

(All quoted excerpts are from Sir Richard Burrton’s classic translation of 1850)

“…King Shahryar took brand in hand and, repairing to the seraglio, slew all the concubines and their Mamelukes. He also sware himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married he would abate her maidenhead at night and slay her next morning, to make sure of his honor. ‘For,’ said he, ‘there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth…’”

After three years of bedding and beheading, the kingdom’s maidens were few.  At last, an “honorable” woman comes to the fore, one Scheherazade, who volunteers to be wedded by the King, and who craftily has a plan.  Each night she tells the King a story that leads to the beginning of another story, at which point she abruptly stops, with the promise that she will continue the next night, if only the King will spare her life another day.  Bewitched with curiosity, the King agrees, and thereby Scheherazade buys for herself 1,001 nights of life.

Rimsky-Korsakov begins his musical narrative with the ominous brass chords of Shahryar’s oath, a musical device that, in its longer notes, descends a whole tone scale.  After a sweet, chordal woodwind reprieve introducing the fair Scheherazade, the heroine speaks.  Here, Korsakov uses the violin, which typically is regarded as the instrument closest to the human voice, and we hear an exotically wandering, melismatic strain over gorgeous harp strums – and the stories begin.
[. . .]

The whole piece is, in a sense, a kind of orchestral concerto, where Korsakov highlights virtuosity for many of the instruments, with the violin as the most virtuosic.  Naturally, then, a bit of a violin cadenza is appropriate.  This is the beginning of The Kalendar Prince, and it also serves to allow Scheherazade to seductively win herself another night of life.  Soon, open intervals drone out in the lower strings as the bassoon begins its humble tune-tale.
[. . .]
The Kalendar’s tale concerns some martial activity, where Korsakov gives us march-like music, reflecting this part:

“…But hardly had we sat down ere we heard the tom-toming of the kettledrum and tantara of trumpets and clash of cymbals, and the rattling of war men’s lances, and the clamors of assailants and the clanking of bits and the neighing of steeds, while the world was canopied with dense dust and sand clouds raised by the horses’ hoofs…”

Alas, there are few good tales without love and romance, and the third movement is such:

“…where [there] was a damsel like a pearl of great price, whose favor banished from my heart an grief and cark and care, and whose soft speech healed the soul in despair and captivated the wise and ware.
[. . .].”

Here, the colors that Korsakov conjures are splendid, and of particular note is the way he scores the percussion instruments to sound as musically integral and, almost, as pitched as the tuned instruments.

The finale is as robust and exciting as they come, with virtuosic writing, changing meters and tempi, and repetitions that drive the drama to exhilarating climaxes.

“…when suddenly a violent squall of wind arose and smote the ship, which rose out of the water and settled upon a great reef, the haunt of sea monsters, where it broke up and fell asunder into planks, and all and everything on board were plunged into the sea.”

[. . .]

Musically speaking, as she sings highly in the harmonics on the violin, Shahryar’s theme of pardon is muted and wooed, and the woodwind chords from the piece’s opening return to end the symphonic sketch in hope and quietude.

As much as the exotic, swashbuckling tales of the Arabian Nights have now embedded themselves into our own storytelling, so Rimsky-Korsakov’s musical legend of it has infused the concert hall, in all its Russian-ness and Eastern-ness.  There are few who have not heard of Sinbad and Scheherazade, and few who have not heard those heroes’ exquisite Russian musical counterpart.
[. . .]

(For an alternative and sarcastically amusing ending to the Arabian Nights, see Edgar Allan Poe’s contribution at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Thousand-and-Second_Tale_of_Scheherazade.)