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Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op.

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Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade Op. 35

The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship


The Tale of the Kalendar Prince
The young Prince and the Young Princess
The Festival of Baghdad; The Sea; The Ship goes to pieces on a Rock surmounted by
a Bronze Warrior

In March 1881 the composer Mussorgsky died, and his friend and colleague Rimsky-
Korsakov undertook the considerable task of editing Mussorgsky’s manuscripts and
preparing them for performance and publication. This task was more extensive than
Rimsky-Korsakov may originally have conceived it to be. The opera ‘Khovanshchina’
preoccupied him between December 1881 and July 1882, and ‘Night on the Bare
Mountain’ was not finally completed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s version until 1886. In
1883 Rimsky-Korsakov was appointed assistant to Balakirev, who had been made
musical director of the Imperial Chapel.

As if all this activity was not enough (although he was relieved of the Inspectorship of
Naval Bands, this post having been abolished in 1884), Rimsky-Korsakov became the
chief musical adviser for the varied activities of the music lover Belaev. Belaev
graduated from being an amateur viola player to establishing himself as the publisher
and promoter of music by Rimsky-Korsakov and his pupils, including Lyadov and
Glazunov. In 1886 Belaev founded the Russian Symphony Concerts, which Rimsky-
Korsakov initially conducted. Finally in 1887 Borodin died and Rimsky-Korsakov,
assisted by Glazunov, heroically completed and orchestrated his opera ‘Prince Igor,
just as he had done with ‘Khovanshchina’.

The 1880s were therefore a very uncreative time for Rimsky-Korsakov. Throughout
the decade his output was limited to minor works: the revision of the First and Third
Symphonies, some church music, the ‘Fantasia on Two Russian Themes’ and the
‘Spanish Capriccio’. The last named was first performed in December 1887 in the
initial season of Belaev’s Russian Symphony Concerts. It was a great success, having
to be repeated. Even at the first rehearsal the music had been interrupted by the
applause of the orchestra. So grateful was Rimsky-Korsakov that he dedicated the
work to the players. It was immediately following this success, and in the midst of
working on ‘Prince Igor’, that he conceived the idea of composing a work inspired by
episodes from ‘Scheherazade’.

The first sketches for this composition were made in St. Petersburg. At the start of the
summer in 1888 Rimsky-Korsakov moved with his family to a country estate in
Nyezhgovitsy. Here ‘Scheherazade’ was finished at the end of July, almost exactly a
year after the completion of the successful ‘Spanish Capriccio’. He also completed
during this summer another of his most popular works, the ‘Russian Easter Festival
Overture’. The first performances of both pieces were given that winter during the
second season of the Russian Symphony Concerts, in December 1888, with great
success. Both works have remained firmly at the centre of the orchestral repertoire
ever since.
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The composition of these three orchestral works, ‘Scheherazade’, the ‘Spanish


Capriccio’, and the ‘Russian Easter Festival Overture’, mark a key point in Rimsky-
Korsakov’s career as a composer. Shortly after their completion, in 1889, he was to
encounter the music of Richard Wagner through performances of ‘The Ring’, given at
St. Petersburg under the distinguished German conductor Karl Muck. Henceforth he
was to devote himself to opera. These orchestral works therefore, to quote the
composer, ‘close a period of my work, at the end of which my orchestration had
attained a considerable degree of virtuosity and warm sonority without Wagnerian
influence, limiting myself to the normally constituted orchestra used by Glinka.’

In his autobiography Rimsky-Korsakov was at pains to point out that the music of
‘Scheherazade’ should not be taken too literally. The themes are not leitmotifs in the
Wagnerian sense, that is associated with specific characters or states of mind. On the
contrary ‘these given motives thread and spread over all the movements of the Suite,
alternating and intertwining each with the other. Appearing as they do each time under
different traits and expressing different moods, the self-same given motives and
themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures.’ Rimsky-
Korsakov’s intention had been to create, ‘knit by the community of its themes and
motives…a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images of oriental character.’ Even so certain
central images can be musically recognised.

The first published edition of the score, produced in 1889, contained a preface that
sets the scene well: ‘The Sultan Schahriar, convinced of the faithlessness of woman,
had sworn to put to death each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana
Scheherazade saved her life by diverting him with stories, which she told him during
a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, conquered by his curiosity, put off from day to
day the execution of his wife and at last renounced entirely his bloody vow. Many
wonders were narrated to Schahriar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her stories the
Sultana borrowed the verses of poets and the words of folk songs, and she fitted
together tales and adventures.’

In the opening movement, subtitled ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ the Sultan’s theme is
heard first, a menacing tune on trombone, tuba, strings and lower woodwind. (In a
slightly changed form this theme is also associated with the sea.) Scheherazade’s
theme follows, on a solo violin accompanied by rich harp chords. Gradually the music
becomes more highly charged, conveying an impression of the sea and its turbulence.
The Sultan’s theme returns and leads to a climax for the whole orchestra.

The second movement is entitled ‘The Tale of the Kalendar Prince’. Scheherazade’s
theme is heard again. The bassoon plays the movement’s principal theme,
representing the prince and his tale of how he disguised himself as a monk and
begged his way around the world. The bassoon theme travels through a range of
moods from the pathetic to the heroic. The orchestra becomes more animated as the
tempo picks up. Brass fanfares develop into a new theme, very brilliant, for trumpet
and trombone, suggesting the Sultan’s theme. Uniquely, Rimsky-Korsakov here
subjects this material to a symphonic development, without at the same time
destroying the sense of fantasy that permeates the work.

The third movement, ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’, is a romantic
interlude set in an oriental garden at twilight. The Prince’s theme is played by the
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violins and the Princess’s by the clarinet, later accompanied by percussion, suggesting
dance music.

The final movement is more elaborate. Initially the Sultan’s theme sounds
forbiddingly, to be answered by Scheherazade’s theme. Then Rimsky-Korsakov
launches into a vivid depiction of the Festival of Baghdad, in music of great
brilliance. The setting changes abruptly to Sinbad’s ship on a sea different in
temperament to that of the first movement. A ferocious storm rages throughout the
orchestra, reaching a tremendous climax representing the shipwreck. Gradually the
tumult dies away, leaving the solo violin, representing the spellbinding storyteller
Scheherazade for the last time, as she finishes her tale. ‘She has succeeded in her
dangerous task and won the love and trust of her lord’.

David Patmore