Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Opus 35

NICOLAI ANDREIEVICH RIMSKY-KORSAKOV was born on March 18, 1844, in Tishkin, near Novgorod, Russia, and died in Liubensk, near Saint Petersburg, on June 21, 1908. He conceived the idea of composing Scheherazade in the winter of 1887-88 and completed the four movements on July 16, 23, and 28, and August 7, 1888. He conducted the first performance at one of the Russian Symphony Concerts at the Club of Nobility, Saint Petersburg, on November 3 that year. Emil Paur conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first North American performance on February 2, 1897. Henry Hadley led the first San Francisco Symphony performance on February 2, 1913 (and Pierre Monteux led the Orchestra in a famous recording of the work), and the most recent performances were given in February 2009 under the direction of Charles Dutoit. The score calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets in A, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, tam-tam, harp, and strings. Performance time: about forty-six minutes.

I would guess that ninety-nine percent of Rimsky-Korsakov performances in this country are accounted for by three works, the Capriccio espagnol, Scheherazade, and the Russian Easter Overture, all written within the space of about a year and a half in 1887 and 1888. In fact, these works virtually marked the end of Rimsky-Korsakov’s career as a composer of orchestral music. In 1889, he determined to devote most of his energies to writing for the theater.

As a boy and young man, Rimsky-Korsakov, many of whose ancestors had been military or naval men, planned a life in the navy. Nicolai’s musical gifts had also manifested early, and by the time he began cadet school, he was already a fairly good pianist and an eager if unpolished composer. When he was seventeen, his piano teacher introduced him to Mily Balakirev, Borodin, and Mussorgsky. Balakirev is the least significant of these as a composer, but he was a vigorous instigator, full of interesting ideas and plans for others, and he found a place in history as the intellectual leader of the group of nationalists—himself, Borodin, C├ęsar Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov—who came to be known as the Mighty Handful or the Mighty Five.

The still teenaged Rimsky-Korsakov fell under Balakirev’s spell immediately. He continued his naval pursuits for a time—not without profit, because his travels to the United States (during the Civil War), the Near East, and Asia were immensely stimulating to his imagination—but the first important step toward turning him into a real composer had been taken. He was still, in his own description, “an officer-dilettante who sometimes enjoyed playing and listening to music,” but with his return to Russia and renewed contact with Balakirev, his proper destiny became clear to him.

He became the complete musical citizen. He composed, but he also conducted, taught, and was a generous friend to colleagues. In the winter of 1887-88, he was bringing into performable shape the unfinished opera Prince Igor by his recently deceased friend Alexander Borodin. While engaged with this music, with its east-of-Saint-Petersburg flavor, he conceived the idea of Scheherazade.

From the beginning, he could not quite make up his mind about the balance between the programmatic and the purely musical elements. How much Arabian Nights, how much just music? And while programmatic elements were undoubtedly present in Scheherazade and played an important part in the shaping of the work, Rimsky-Korsakov did not want his listeners to be distracted by being glued to extra-musical detail.

He headed the score with this preface: “The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, 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 one thousand one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.”

“In composing Scheherazade I meant the hints [conveyed by the titles] to direct the listener’s fancy but slightly on the path which my own fancy had traveled,” Rimsky wrote in his memoirs. “All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after another and composed on the basis of themes common to all four movements.”

Scheherazade is a wonderful piece. It is full of glorious solo opportunities. Its vitality, the charm of its tunes, and the effortless brilliance of its orchestration never fail to make an impression and to give delight.

One of the programmatic elements of which we can be certain is the portrayal of Sultan and Sultana in the first minute. The unison and fortissimo proclamation that opens the work obviously represents the former, a brutal psychopath. Fairy-tale chords for soft woodwinds lead to the seductive and flattering violin-voice of Scheherazade herself.

And now the symphonic suite can begin. The first movement is spacious music—call it Prelude, call it “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” or simply Allegro non troppo. The measures are broad, and the pace of harmonic change is majestic. The Sultan’s motif is the principal one; the Scheherazade violin also returns, and in a manner that suggests she is doing more than just telling stories. Development is cleverly and effectively mixed with simple statement and restatement. The chapter ends dreamily.

Scheherazade herself begins the second movement. After her brief introduction, the bassoon leads off with a wistful theme. The intensity is heightened when the oboe takes this melody, but the violins change its character to grazioso. Brass fanfares erupt, leading to one of
Rimsky-Korsakov’s most imaginative orchestral inventions, a clarinet recitative over the unmeasured strumming of plucked strings. Fanfares again open the way to the second main part of the movement, a swift, feather-light scherzo that is both reminiscent of Berlioz’s “Queen Mab” and prophetic of Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The fanfares return, as does the recitative, this time declaimed by the bassoon, and the movement makes its way to a brilliant ending.

The tender third movement returns to the more leisurely gait of the first. It is a lovely flow of lyric invention, scored with remarkable finesse, the writing for quiet percussion being especially charming. Scheherazade has her say, but it is with the lyric main theme that the movement comes to its gentle and smiling close.

The finale opens much as the first movement did, with the contrast of Sultan and Sultana, though this version is more elaborate. The music, after this double introduction, is quick and exciting. With the appearance of the Sultan’s theme, grandly declaimed by the trombones against swirling strings, the suite arrives at its rhetorical high point. It subsides into sinister shudderings, punctuated by a single stroke on the tam-tam—a nice instance of the composer’s elegant economy with all his colorful percussion. Appropriately enough, it is Scheherazade who has the last word. When her sinuous melody returns, her mode of address is sweet and capricious. Then she repeats way down on the fourth string—one can just see the nightgown slipping off her shoulder—and the music climbs, slowly, slowly, into the ether. This is going to be the first secure night’s sleep the lady has had in almost three years.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in July 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony (RCA Victor Gold Seal)  |  Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)  |  Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Theater Orchestra (Philips)  |  Yuri Temirkanov with the New York Philharmonic (RCA Red Seal)

Reading: My Musical Life, by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (translated by J.A. Joffee, Vienna House; Best Books)  |  Russian Music, by Alfred J. Swan (Norton)  |  Rimsky-Korsakov: A Short Biography, by Gerald Abraham (AMS Press)