The story of The Arabian Nights is full of well-known stories from Aladdin to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves of “open sesame” fame. The origin of the story is not exactly appropriate for little ears - the Arabian nights were 1001 nights of stories told by Scheherezade. She was woman betrothed to a sultan who believed all women will be unfaithful. As a result, he beheads each new bride the morning after their wedding so she can never cheat on him. However, Scheherazade was privy to his murderous ways. When it was her turn, she told him a story every night, left him on a cliffhanger, and lived to see another day.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a Russian composer during the Romantic era. Programmatic music became very popular during this era. It is a style of composition that tells a story through the music. The program notes from San Francisco Symphony’s performance of this piece goes into great detail about the composition:
“How much Arabian Nights, how much just music? And while programmatic elements were undoubtedly present in Scheherazade and played an important part in the shaping of the work, Rimsky-Korsakov did not want his listeners to be distracted by being glued to extra-musical detail.
He headed the score with this preface:
‘The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient of recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of one thousand one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.’
The composer’s own thoughts about Scheherazade as expressed in his memoirs are worth attending to:
‘The program I had been guided by . . . consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite. . . . The unifying thread consisted of the brief introductions to the first, second, and fourth movements and the intermezzo in movement three, written for violin solo and delineating Scheherazade herself as she tells her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan. The final conclusion of the fourth movement serves the same artistic purpose.
In this manner, developing the musical material quite freely, I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motifs, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character. . .
In composing Scheherazade I meant the hints [conveyed by the titles] to direct the listener’s fancy but slightly on the path which my own fancy had traveled. All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after another and composed on the basis of themes common to all four movements.’”
You can watch a full performance of it at the video below. Enjoy!
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s name goes hand in hand with ballet music. Born in Russia in 1840, he showed musical talent at a young age and learned to play the piano and composed. However, there was not a Russian music conservatory for him to attend, so he originally studied to be a civil servant in St. Petersburg starting at age 10. By the time he finished his studies in 1859, the precursor to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Russian Musical Society, was founded. There he studied music and composition and honed his craft.
The music in Russia up to that point was primarily imported from Europe and had a distinctive Western European sound. Russia has a rich folk music tradition which does not adhere to the standard Western European music that was being taught at the Russian Musical Society and later St. Petersburg Conservatory. There was a group known as The Five in Russia who advocated for a distinct Russian sound. The members included Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Cui. Tchaikovsky and his style did not quite fit in either group - he and his music lived in the liminal space between both those musical styles.
Tchaikovsky had a tumultuous personal life. At 37 he married a former student, Antonina Miliukova, but their marriage lasted only two and a months before irreconcilable differences forced them to separate. It is generally accepted by scholars that Tchaikovsky was homosexual, which considering the time, led to his difficult personal relationships. The Soviet Union tried to delete any homosexual references from the records, which has led to confusion in the past. Tchaikovsky also had an interesting arrangement with his main patroness, Nadezhda von Meck. They corresponded regularly and her money allowed him to focus solely on composition for the next 13 years, but they agreed to never meet in person. Despite never meeting, her patronage made it so Tchaikovsky was the first full time, professional Russian composer.
Tchaikovsky became famous for his ballets, operas, and orchestral works. One of his most famous pieces, 1812 Overture, can be heard every 4th of July during the fireworks, which are accentuated by the canons in the score. Eugene Onegin is one of his beloved and performed operas. And finally his ballets are what we hear every Christmas with The Nutcracker and live in popular culture through the sweeping themes of the Romeo and Juliet Love Theme and Swan Lake’s dark melodies.
We focused on Sleeping Beauty today, which tells the story from a slightly different source than the classic Disney animation we all know. However, the Disney version does reimagine the famous waltz as Princess Aurora’s song, Once Upon a Dream.
Below is a full version of the ballet to watch - it’s in three acts and you can go at whatever pace your little one wants. Each fairy has their own special dance and even the evil Carabosse isn’t too scary. I hope you enjoy and dance along!
Tomorrow, Saturday October 14, is our first class of this session. And while it is unfortunately going to rain again, the space at Calvary Presbyterian is available so we’ll meet indoors. Though there’s not much better than singing on a crisp, sunny fall morning in the park, we do have access to a piano at the church! I love getting to play the piano for our songs and the kids love plunking the keys too, so it’s a great perk of being inside