Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Program notes

…the choice of E major for the billowing cello figures was surely no accident: his ears ‘saw’ this key as dark blue.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, op. 35

Largo e maestoso – Lento – Allegro non troppo (The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship)
Lento (The Story of the Kalandar Prince)
Andantino quasi allegretto (The Young Prince and the Young Princess)
Allegro molto – Vivo – Allegro non troppo e maestoso – Lento (Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior – Conclusion)

The Sultan Shahryar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, had vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient of recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of a thousand and one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the Sultan postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and ended by renouncing altogether his sanguinary resolution.

We think we know the story of Scheherazade, Persian queen and fabled storyteller of The Thousand and One Nights. Some of her stories (and a few that were invented for her by Europeans) have become part of popular culture: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin (an eighteenth-century French addition), and one you’ll recognise from the movement listing for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade: Sinbad the Sailor. Strictly speaking, orchestras shouldn’t publish those narrative titles; the composer withdrew them with so as not to constrain his listeners’ imaginations.

Rimsky-Korsakov had taken the idea of Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights as his starting point, and the movement titles he’d devised in the winter of 1887–88 had been intended to bring to mind particular characters – the story of a kalandar or ‘beggar’ prince, for example. But the end result, he said, was a ‘kaleidoscope of fairytale images and designs of Eastern character’, more concerned with the connotations of the East it brings to mind than with literal storytelling.

He believed it was futile to seek in Scheherazade leading motifs that could be consistently linked to particular characters or events. The motifs we recognise were ‘nothing but purely musical material … for symphonic development’ and a means of creating unity between the four movements, and on each appearance they are presented in different musical guises so that the ‘themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures’.

‘All I had desired,’ he later wrote in My Musical Life, ‘was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Eastern narrative describing a motley succession of fantastic happenings,’ and not merely four pieces based on common themes.

The ominous octaves representing the stern Sultan in the opening, for example, appear in the tale of the Kalandar Prince, although Shahryar plays no part in that narrative. And the muted fanfare of the second movement returns in the otherwise unconnected depiction of the foundering ship. Rimsky-Korsakov also cites the appearance of both the Kalandar Prince’s theme and the theme of the Young Princess in the Baghdad festival although ‘nothing is said about these persons taking part in the festivities’.

Rimsky-Korsakov did admit, however, that one of his motifs was quite specific, attached not to any of the stories, but to the storyteller who provides the frame story of The Arabian Nights: ‘The unifying thread consisted of the brief introductions to the first, second and fourth movements and the intermezzo in movement three, written for violin solo and delineating Scheherazade herself as telling her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan.’

It is this idea – an intricately winding violin theme supported only by the harp – which soothes the thunderous opening and embarks upon the first tale: the sea and Sinbad’s ship. For Rimsky-Korsakov, who was synæsthesic, the choice of E major for the billowing cello figures was surely no accident: his ears ‘saw’ this key as dark blue.

But you don’t have to be synæsthesic to experience the marvellous colours of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral writing. He considered Scheherazade one of those works in which his ‘orchestration had reached a considerable degree of virtuosity and bright sonority without Wagner’s influence, within the limits of the usual make-up of Glinka’s orchestra’. So formidable is his instinct that, with surprisingly modest forces (adding to the traditional orchestra only piccolo, cor anglais, harp and percussion), Rimsky-Korsakov can convince his listeners of the raging of a storm at sea, the exuberance of a festival and the exotic colours of the East.

A cajoling melody played by solo bassoon represents a Kalandar (or ‘beggar’) Prince in the second movement. (Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps deliberately, neglects to tell us which of the beggar princes in The Arabian Nights he had in mind.) The dramatic middle section features muted fanfares, based on the Sultan’s theme. The third movement opens with a sinuous violin melody – it’s easy to imagine Scheherazade telling this story in her own voice.

The similarity between the two main themes of the third movement (for violin and then flute and clarinet) suggests that the Young Prince and Princess are perfectly matched in temperament and character.

An agitated transformation of the Sultan’s theme, in dialogue with Scheherazade’s theme, prefaces the final tale. The fourth movement combines the Festival in Baghdad and the tale of the shipwreck in music that’s both splendid and terrifying. Triangle and tambourines accompany the lively cross-rhythms of the carnival; and the mood builds in intensity before all is swamped by the return of the sea theme from the first movement. But after the fury of the shipwreck, it is Scheherazade who has the last word. Her spinning violin solo emerges in gentle triumph over the Sultan’s bloodthirsty resolution.

Yvonne Frindle © 2023

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade calls for an orchestra of two flutes, piccolo, two oboes (one doubling cor anglais), two clarinets and two bassoons; four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba; timpani and a large percussion section; harp and strings.


Russia and the East From the time of Ivan the Terrible, Russia expanded its territories in the near and far east. And in the nineteenth century composers frequently based their works on Eastern themes as an expression of their Russianness. Think: Borodin’s Prince Igor, Balakirev’s Islamey and, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. In Russia, as in many European nations, the so-called ‘Oriental’ style was a fashion that followed in the footsteps of commercial colonialism and expanding empires. (Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, was influenced by the sounds he’d heard during his travels as a young naval officer.)

This meant that ‘Orient’ meant something different depending on where you were standing. If you were Russian, it began at home, with those countries that had been absorbed by Imperial Russia, and it snaked south and east, through Turkey and Persia and beyond. But for a French composer like Saint-Saëns, the ‘Orient’ included North Africa and the Far East. It included Spain, which had been influenced by centuries of Moorish presence. Ironically, it also included Russia. And for that we can partly blame Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. He programmed operas and ballets that he thought would appeal to the Parisian audience. This meant Eastern themes, with shades of decadence and barely disguised erotic overtones. (He staged a Scheherazade ballet to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music with choreography by Fokine and a murder-in-the-harem scenario.) As a result, the Russian ‘Oriental’ style of the turn of the twentieth century is what listeners came to think of as Russian.

Yvonne Frindle © 2023


The Arabian Nights stories belong to an ancient and fluid tradition, a mixture of literature and oral tales from a variety of sources: mainly from what’s now Syria and Iraq, but also Iran, Turkey and Greece. The stories reached Europe when Antoine Galland published a French translation of The Thousand and One Nights at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

There are hundreds of stories. If you go to the library thinking you’re going to borrow them, be prepared to lug home a dozen or so volumes. But we all know certain characters, some more authentic than others and, above all, we know the frame story about Scheherazade and the Sultan.

In many ways The Thousand and One Nights, as literature, has always enjoyed more prominence and interest in the West than in the Middle East. They became hugely popular – the source and inspiration for all sorts of artistic creations. And in the nineteenth-century Europe of Rimsky-Korsakov, ‘Scheherazade’ embodied all that was sumptuous, exotic and romantic – part of an imagined East.

Yvonne Frindle © 2023

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