Sheherazade (Scheherazade; Russian: Шехерaзада, Shekherazada in transliteration), Op. 35, is a symphonic poem composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. Based on One Thousand and One Nights, sometimes known as The Arabian Nights, this orchestral work combines two features typical of Russian music and of Rimsky-Korsakov in particular: dazzling, colorful orchestration and an interest in the East, which figured greatly in the history of Imperial Russia, as well as orientalism in general. It is considered Rimsky-Korsakov's most popular work. The music was used in a ballet by Michel Fokine. This use of the music was denounced by the Rimsky-Korsakov estate, led by the composer's widow, Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova.
During the winter of 1887, as he worked to complete Alexander Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor, Rimsky-Korsakov decided to compose an orchestral piece based on pictures from The Arabian Nights as well as separate and unconnected episodes. After formulating musical sketches of his proposed work, he moved with his family to the Glinki-Mavriny dacha, in Nyezhgovitsy along the Cheryemenyetskoye Lake. During the summer there he finished Sheherazade and the Russian Easter Festival Overture. Notes in his autograph orchestral score show that the former was completed between June 4 and August 7, 1888. Sheherazade consisted of a symphonic suite of four related movements that form a unified theme. It was written to produce a sensation of fantasy narratives from the Orient.
Initially, Rimsky-Korsakov intended to name the respective movements in Sheherazade "Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale". However, after weighing the opinions of Anatoly Lyadov and others, as well as his own aversion to a too-definitive program, he settled upon thematic headings, based upon the tales from The Arabian Nights.
The composer deliberately made the titles vague, so that they are not associated with specific tales or voyages of Sinbad. However, in the epigraph to the finale, he does make reference to the adventure of Prince Ajib. In a later edition, he did away with titles altogether, desiring instead that the listener should hear his work only as an Oriental-themed symphonic music that evokes a sense of the fairy-tale adventure. He stated "All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.” Rimsky-Korsakov went on to say that he kept the name Scheherazade because it brought to everyone’s mind the fairy-tale wonders of Arabian Nights and the East in general.
Rimsky wrote a brief introduction that he intended for use with the score, as well as the program for the premiere:
The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Sheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.
The grim bass motif that opens the first movement is supposed to represent the domineering Sultan (see theme illustrated below). This theme emphasizes four notes of a descending whole tone scale: E-D-C-A♯. But soon, after a few chords in the woodwinds reminiscent of the opening of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream overture, we hear the leitmotif that represents the character of the storyteller herself, Scheherazade, his wife, who eventually succeeds at appeasing him with her stories. This theme is a tender, sensuously winding melody for violin solo, accompanied by harp. Both of these two themes are shown below.
According to Rimsky-Korsakov, second and fourth movements and the intermezzo in movement three, written for violin solo and delineating Scheherazade herself as telling her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan. The final conclusion of movement four serves the same artistic purpose. Rimsky-Korsakov stated “The unison phrase, as though depicting Scheherazade’s stern spouse, at the beginning of the suite appears as a datum, in the Kalendar’s Narrative, where there cannot, however, be any mention of Sultan Shakhriar. In this manner, developing quite freely the musical data taken as a basis of composition, I had to view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character …” Rimsky-Korsakov had a tendency to juxtapose keys a major third apart, which can even be seen in the strong relationship between E and C major in first movement. This, along with his distinctive orchestration of melodies which are easily comprehensible, assembled rhythms, and talent for soloistic writing allowed for such a piece as Scheherazade to be written.
The movements were unified by the short introductions in the first, second and fourth movements, and an intermezzo in movement three. The last was a violin solo representing Sheherazade, and a similar artistic theme is represented in the conclusion of movement four. Writers have suggested that Rimsky's earlier career as a naval officer may have been responsible for beginning and ending the suite with themes of the sea. The peaceful coda at the end of the final movement is representative of Sheherazade finally winning over the heart of the Sultan, allowing her to at last gain a peaceful night's sleep.
The work is scored for two flutes and a piccolo (with 2nd flute doubling on 2nd piccolo for a few bars), two oboes (with 2nd doubling cor anglais), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns in F, two trumpets in A and B-flat, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, harp and strings. The music premiered in Saint Petersburg on October 28, 1888 conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The reasons for its popularity are clear enough; it is a score replete with beguiling orchestral colors, fresh and piquant melodies, with a mild oriental flavor, a rhythmic vitality largely absent from many major orchestral works of the later 19th century, and a directness of expression unhampered by quasi-symphonic complexities of texture and structure.
|I.||The Sea and Sinbad's Ship (Largo e maestoso — Lento — Allegro non troppo — Tranquillo)
This movement is composed of various melodies and contains a general A B C A1 B C1 form. Although each section is highly distinctive, aspects of melodic figures carry through and unite them into a movement. Although similar in form to the classical symphony, the movement is more similar to the variety of motives used in one of Rimsky-Korsakov's previous works Antar. Antar, however, used genuine Arabic melodies as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s own ideas of an oriental flavor.
|II.||The Kalendar Prince (Lento — Andantino — Allegro molto — Vivace scherzando — Moderato assai — Allegro molto ed animato)
This movement follows a type of ternary theme and variation and is described as a fantastic narrative. The variations only change by virtue of the accompaniment, highlighting the Rimskyness in the sense of simple musical lines allowing for greater appreciation of the orchestral clarity and brightness. Inside the general melodic line, a fast section highlights changes within both tonality and structure. of the fanfare motif, played by trombone and muted trumpet.
|III.||The Young Prince and The Young Princess (Andantino quasi allegretto — Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato)
This movement is also ternary, and is considered the simplest movement in form and melodic content. The inner section is said to be based on the theme from Tamara, while the outer sections have song-like melodic content. The outer themes are related to the inner by tempo and common motif, and the whole movement is finished by a quick coda return to the inner motif, balancing it out nicely.
|IV.||Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman. (Allegro molto — Lento — Vivo — Allegro non troppo e maestoso — Tempo come I)
This movement ties in aspects of all the proceeding movements as well as adding some new ideas Including but not limited to: an introduction of both the beginning of the movement and the Vivace section based on Sultan Shakhriar’s theme, a repeat of the main Sheherazade violin theme, and a reiteration of the fanfare motif to portray the ship wreck. Coherence is maintained by the ordered repetition of melodies, and continues the impression of a symphonic suite, rather than separate movements. A final conflicting relationship of the subdominant minor Shakhriar theme to the tonic major cadence of the Scheherazade theme resolves in a fantastic, lyrical, and finally peaceful conclusion.
A ballet adaptation of Sheherazade premiered on June 4, 1910, at the Opéra Garnier in Paris by the Ballets Russes. The choreography for the ballet was by Michel Fokine and the libretto was from Fokine and Léon Bakst, who also designed sets and costumes. The widow of Rimsky-Korsakov protested what she saw as the disarrangement of her husband's music in this choreographic drama.
Passages from the symphonic suite Scheherazade were also adapted for the ballet scene that closes the motion picture Song of Scheherazade, in which the lead actress, Yvonne De Carlo, was also the principal dancer. The plot of this film is a heavily fictionalized story, based on the composer's early career in the navy. He was played by Jean-Pierre Aumont.
It has also been arranged for clarinet in B♭ and piano by Oriol López Calle, keeping the E major key and giving the clarinet the solo violin role and a constant dialogue with the orchestra which is represented by the piano.
Stephen Roberts has written a 'fantasy' on this work for brass band. It was written for the 2013 British Open, one of the most prestigious brass band contests.
Scheherazade is a popular music choice for competitive figure skating. Various cuts mainly from Movement I were widely used by skaters like Michelle Kwan, Yuna Kim, Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner and Midori Ito etc. Notably, American figure skater Evan Lysacek used Scheherazade in his free skate and won the gold medal at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It was also used by American ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis in their free dance, where they won the gold medal at 2014 Winter Olympics.
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- Video - Rimsky-Korsakov - "Scheherazade" - Suite (50:23).
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