Though Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) music is performed often today, few works have reached such fame and commonality in the symphonic canon as his orchestral suite “Scheherazade.” Part fairy tale, part symphonic journey, the work depicts countless characters and affectations through its varied orchestration and colorful shifts in tone.
This particular period in late-19th century history foreshadowed a near-century-long fascination with the East and far-fetched storytelling. Mystery, magic, and deceit run strong through artistic content up through the mid-20th century. Rimsky-Korsakov’s fascination with what lay east of St. Petersburg led him to Scheherazade, with its titular character hailing from Egyptian, Persian, and Indian folk tales.
The story goes that Scheherazade is the daughter of the Court’s vizier, and is offered by her father to marry Shahryar, the king. Shahryar, upon learning of his first wife’s infidelity, vows to take a new virgin every day, and in the next morning, kills them before they can become unfaithful to him. Scheherazade, a cunning and brilliant mind depicted by a violin solo, begins telling bedtime stories to Shahryar, but cuts them short just shy of their climax—and dawn. Scheherazade hooks Shahryar with brilliant plot, then leaves him with cliffhangers to sway him toward inviting her to return for another night. This continues for 1,001 nights until, finally, Shahryar falls in love and agrees to take Scheherazade as his bride.
Musically, the work has four movements of varied texture and color. Characters are captured in solo instruments: the heroine Scheherazade captured in a melodic violin solo, an opening brass fanfare is credit as representative of the Sultan. Rimsky-Korsakov composed “Scheherazade” to produce a kaleidoscopic effect across the four movements: first, the ocean carrying a pirate’s ship; the devious exploits of a Kalendar Prince; a passionate, enchanting love story of a young prince and princess; and finally, a storm-wrecked ocean that wrecks the ship from the first movement.
Listen for how “Scheherazade” captures all the unique language of Rimsky-Korsakov’s pen across its 45 minutes. Solo voices are given plenty of character in their melodic lines, and rich, lush instrumentation produces a wide array of texture for listeners. Melodic lines are repeated over re-worked harmonic structures in a masterful way, capturing in the work a whole prism of color and sound.