Scheherazade is the quintessential musical statement on The Arabian Nights, the celebrated collection of Middle Eastern folk tales from which sprang such characters as Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. As one of the prime expressions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of orchestral texture, this series of musical episodes also helped establish the composer as a founding father of 20th-century orchestral color. This and other works by Rimsky-Korsakov helped spur further innovations in orchestration by Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and others.
The preface to the composer’s first edition of the Scheherazade score sets both the musical and the dramatic mood: “The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and faithlessness of women, vowed to execute each of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting the Sultan in tales she told him, through 1,001 nights. Impelled by curiosity, the Sultan continually put off her execution, and at last entirely abandoned his sanguinary resolve. Many marvels did Scheherazade relate to him, citing the verses of poets and the words of songs, weaving tale into tale and story into story.”
Scheherazade’s program draws on several images and stories from Arabian Nights, arranged in four interconnected movements. “The program that guided me in the composition of Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights,” Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “scattered through all four movements.” Scheherazade was first performed in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1888.
The opening theme seems to represent the Sultan’s booming voice, demanding that Scheherazade begin her stories; the willowy violin solo that follows seeks to characterize her discursive story-telling. Both recur throughout all four movements. The first movement conveys both the gentle rocking of the ocean and the character of Sindbad, the fictional sailor whose restless voyages form a crucial part of later versions of the Arabian Nights. (Rimsky-Korsakov, who sailed the high seas as an officer in the Russian navy, seems to have reveled in such tales.) The second movement recounts the story of a lowly Kalander who turns out to be a nobleman; the Kalanders were itinerant magicians and showmen at Middle Eastern courts. The mesmerizing slow movement relates a love story between the Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur. The Finale tells a series of stories: “The Festival at Baghdad,” “The Sea,” and “Shipwreck.” Through the course of storytelling one hears the Sultan’s stern theme gradually melt into something more sensuous and cheerful, and perhaps even loving.
Rimsky-Korsakov later wrote that his aim was to create “a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character,” which led him later to do away with most of the headings. “I meant these hints to direct only slightly the listener’s fancy on the path that my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each.” In the final analysis, we can listen to Scheherazade either as music that tells tales or as music free of programmatic connections. Its discursive style suggests moods and emotional states, but it also holds up organically as a purely musical structure.