Scheherazade, op. 35

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        Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s career stood in the very center of Russian musical life of the  second half of the nineteenth century.  His first career was in the Russian navy, but he soon garnered success in music.  Known primarily for his fifteen operas, he was instrumental in the rising importance of that genre in Russia.  In addition to his fame and influence as a composer, he was also head of the conservatory in St. Petersburg--his statue dominates the little park directly across the street from the conservatory and the famed Mariinsky Theatre.   In the West, of course, we know him primarily for his symphonic overtures and the tone poem, Scheherazade.  His ability as an orchestrator and teacher of orchestration is one of his many legacies--Igor Stravinsky was one of his students.  In fact, much of the marvelous musical atmosphere that audiences adore in Stravinsky’s early ballets, the Rite of Spring, Firebird, and Petrouchka, lead directly back to Rimsky-Korsakov and the orchestral style of his operas.  And it is of no small interest that there are sections in Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloé that seem lifted right out of Scheherazade. A fascination with the exotic, with non-Western subject matter was a prime characteristic of Romanticism, and  Russian music of the late nineteenth century is exemplary of this predilection. 

          Scheherazade, completed in 1888, is a musical depiction of the well-known story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.  The eponymous heroine must entertain her bridegroom, the murderous sultan, with continuous intriguing tales in order to forestall the arrival of the executioner who had beheaded a thousand previous wives the morning after their successive marriages.  While Rimsky-Korsakov more or less disclaimed his well-known reputation for his evocative musical orientalism, his abilities therein certainly created a triumph of exotic atmosphere in Scheherazade.   The four movements--following their titles, which Rimsky-Korsakov later withdrew--depict specific stories of Scheherazade, the Sultana.  We can follow loosely the narrative, for Scheherazade is represented by the elaborate, highly figured violin solo that constantly weaves in and out of the texture as the stories unfold.   The composer makes ample use of other solo instruments throughout the suite, combined with a rich, colorful orchestral texture that carries it all.  The last movement ties all the tales and stories together by juxtaposing the principal themes from the preceding movements in a smashing climax.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan