NIKOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 35 (1888)
The telling of a cycle of mesmerizing tales set in a framework is a time-honored literary device, practiced by, for example, Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio in his Decameron. But the most famous is probably The 1001 Arabian Nights, a collection of Persian, Indian, and Egyptian stories collected, translated into French, and published by Antoine Galland at the beginning of the 18th century. These exotic narratives — some dating as far back as the 10th century — are the inspiration for Scheherazade, a glittering orchestral showpiece by one of music's greatest orchestrators, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The framework is introduced by the composer: "The Sultan Shakriar, convinced that all women are false and inconstant, vowed to put to death each of his wives after their wedding night. However, the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her husband with incredible tales, one after another for 1001 nights. Driven by curiosity, the sultan put off her execution from day to day, and finally abandoned his bloody designs." The titles of the four movements were added ex post facto by fellow-composer Anatoly Liadov, but don't depict to any specific incidents; rather, according to R-K, they were to give a kaleidoscopic impression of the tales. "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship" introduces the signature instruments of the two protagonists: the languid violin and harp for the Sultana, manly brass fanfares for the Sultan, underscored by rocking music reminiscent of the sea. "The Tale of the Kalander Prince" follows, referring to a prince disguised as a member of the Kalander tribe, itinerant monks (like French troubadours or the Goliards of Carmina burana fame) who entertained with stories and magic. Next comes "The Young Prince and the Young Princess" — full of dreamy, romantic melodies. The finale, "The Festival at Baghdad; the Sea; the Ship Breaks asunder on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior," shows R-K at his dazzling best, with cymbals and tambourines overlaying the now unified themes of the transformed Sultan and the wife who tamed him.