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!