Rimsky-Korsakov’s magical journey in Scheherazade

By Pat Suarez

Photo: Piano prodigy Anastasia Rizikov, 16, performs in Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s opening concert Sept. 30 at the Schuster

Who doesn’t like a fascinating story? Who wouldn’t like 1,001 of them, especially if you had to make them up, one each night, just to save your life? Such is the premise of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the featured work on the opening concert series of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2016-17 season, Friday, Sept. 30.

In a time when the peninsula was just referred to as “Arabia,” before the discovery of oil, before geopolitics and strife, 19th century Europeans held a fascination with what they had heard of that region: never-ending sunny days, sand, camels, beautiful women who wore flowing gowns and sheer face covers. One of their favorite stories was of a storyteller to a jealous king.

The king’s name was Shahryar, whose former wife had been unfaithful to him. Having put her to death, he resolved to marry a virgin every day and kill her before she had a chance to betray him. One evening, the daughter of the king’s vizier (an assistant, of sorts) volunteered to spend the night with the king, over the vizier’s frantic objections. The daughter’s name was Scheherazade; and her sister, Dunyazade, knew the king loved tales of adventure.

Scheherazade had a plan: tell a story to the king and try to drag the story to a second night. Her first story was called “The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni.” As dawn approached, Scheherazade told Shahryar that she had to stop as the sun was rising. Shahryar was so taken by the quality of her tale that he asked her back.

The following night, Scheherazade finished her story and began a second one, “The Fisherman and the Jinni.” Again the king asked her back. This went on for two years and nine months. Throughout the journey, the king slowly fell in love with Scheherazade, spared her life, and married her, making her his queen.

The tale influenced an impressive list of writers, including Pushkin, Tolstoy, W. B. Yeats, H. G. Wells, and H. P. Lovecraft. It also got the attention of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of Russia’s premier composers.

Born in 1844, as the Romantic era of classical music was growing in popularity, Rimsky-Korsakov was the son of a music composer and a peasant. Rimsky-Korsakov initially favored composing in an Oriental style. Eventually, he migrated to Western music and then to Russian nationalism. His style was overt, with plenty of orchestral dazzle, and he became a concert hall darling. Rimsky-Korsakov edited the works of a powerhouse group called The Five, whose circle included Alexander Borodin, Mily Balakirev, and Modest Mussorgsky, no strangers to packed houses. A frequent visitor to the Rimsky-Korsakov home was Peter Tchaikovsky. One can only imagine the music-making in the Rimsky-Korsakov parlor.

In 1887, at the age 43, Rimsky-Korsakov decided to compose a large-scale suite based on four of the 1,001 tales. It wasn’t until the summer of 1888 that Rimsky-Korsakov began work, completing the score on Aug. 7. Originally, Rimsky-Korsakov titled the four movements “Prelude,” “Ballade,” “Adagio,” and “Finale.” Later, however, he accepted suggestions of more exotic titles from his former student and composer Anatoly Lyadov. The jazzier titles became “The Sea and Sindbad’s Ship,” “The Story of the Kalandar Prince,” “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” and “Festival at Baghdad; the Sea; The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior.” None of these titles were real titles from the 1,001 stories, but they did evoke the spirit of the tales and what Rimsky-Korsakov referred to as “the East.”

Rimsky-Korsakov invoked a compositional device from the French composer Hector Berlioz: assigning meaning or characters to music phrases. So, the growling trombones that open the work symbolize the king, the snaking violin solo that follows represents Scheherazade, and so on. Rimsky-Korsakov loved the ocean and wrote swirling, splashing music here to depict it.

Scheherazade is one of the cornerstone works in the classical literature – immediately recognizable. Many composers try to put the audience into a mood, frame of mind, or even a physical situation. With Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov succeeds so effectively you expect a sultan to appear and to need a towel to dry off after the sea crashes over you. It is a staple of concert halls around the globe, performed several times per concert season. A co-worker of mine four decades ago didn’t particularly care for classical music, but he played LPs of Scheherazade, literally every day, and spoke of it as often. Scheherazade was a staple on KRLD-AM’s overnight radio show American Airlines Music ‘Til Dawn. It is a work that will be with us until the end of time.

The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra performs Scheherazade at 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct.1, at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Also in this opening concert are Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, written when the composer was 8; and Rachmaninoff’s irresistible Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with 16-year-old Canadian piano prodigy Anastasia Rizikov. For more information, please visit DaytonPerformingArts.org.

Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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