Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov)

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Symphonic suite by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Scheherazade by Léon Bakst (before 1917)
Based onOne Thousand and One Nights
Composed1888 (1888)
DateOctober 28, 1888

Scheherazade, also commonly Sheherazade (Russian: Шехеразада, romanized: Shekherazada, IPA: [ʂɨxʲɪrɐˈzadə]), Op. 35, is a symphonic suite composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888 and based on One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights).[1]

This orchestral work combines two features typical of Russian music in general 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. The name "Scheherazade" refers to the main character Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights. It is one of Rimsky-Korsakov's most popular works. [2]


The Blue Sultana by Léon Bakst

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 One Thousand and One Nights as well as separate and unconnected episodes.[3] After formulating musical sketches of his proposed work, he moved with his family to the Glinki-Mavriny dacha, in Nyezhgovitsy along the Cherementets Lake (near present-day Luga, in Leningrad Oblast). The dacha where he stayed was destroyed by the Germans during World War II.

During the summer, he finished Scheherazade 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.[4] Scheherazade 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.[5]

Initially, Rimsky-Korsakov intended to name the respective movements in Scheherazade "Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale".[6] 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.[3]

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.[7] In a later edition, Rimsky-Korsakov 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,[4] stating:

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.

He 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.[3]



Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a brief introduction that he intended for use with the score as well as the program for the premiere:

The Sultan Schakhriar, 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 Scheherazade 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.[8]

The grim bass motif that opens the first movement represents the domineering Sultan.[4]

  \relative c{
    \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"tuba"
    \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
    \tempo 4 = 130
    \clef bass
    \key g \major
    \time 2/2 
      e2 \ff b d~ \times 2/3 { d4 c b } c2.~\startTrillSpan c8. g16\stopTrillSpan ais2\accent\staccato fis\accent\staccato \bar "||"

This theme emphasizes four notes of a descending whole tone scale: E–D–C–B[9] (each note is a down beat, i.e. first note in each measure, with A for B). After a few chords in the woodwinds, reminiscent of the opening of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream overture,[7] the audience hears the leitmotif that represents the character of the storyteller herself, Scheherazade. This theme is a tender, sensuous, winding melody for violin solo,[10] accompanied by harp.[8]

  \relative c'''{
    \set Staff.midiInstrument = #"violin"
    \set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
    \tempo 4 = 60
    \clef treble
    \key g \major
    \time 4/4
      e4(~ e8 \times 2/3 { d16 e d } \times 2/3 { c d \set stemRightBeamCount = #1 c) } \set stemLeftBeamCount = #1 \times 2/3 { b( c b } \times 2/3 { a c \set stemRightBeamCount = #1 e } \set stemLeftBeamCount = #1 \times 2/3 { g fis e) } e4( \bar "||"

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.[3]

Rimsky-Korsakov had a tendency to juxtapose keys a major third apart, which can be seen in the strong relationship between E and C major in the 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.[11]

The movements are unified by the short introductions in the first, second and fourth movements, as well as an intermezzo in the third. The last is a violin solo representing Scheherazade, and a similar artistic theme is represented in the conclusion of the fourth movement.[4] The peaceful coda at the end of the final movement is representative of Scheherazade finally winning over the heart of the Sultan, allowing her to at last gain a peaceful night's sleep.[12]

The music premiered in Saint Petersburg on October 28, 1888, conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov.[13]

The reasons for its popularity are clear enough; it is a score replete with beguiling orchestral colors, fresh and piquant melodies, 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.[11]


The work is scored for an orchestra consisting of:[13]


The work consists of four movements:

  1. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship
    Largo e maestoso – Lento – Allegro non troppo – Tranquillo (E minor – E major)
    This movement is made up of various melodies and contains a general A B C A′ B C′ 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 Arab melodies as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s own ideas of an oriental flavor.[11]
  2. The Story of the Kalendar Prince
    Lento – Andantino – Allegro molto – Vivace scherzando – Moderato assai – Allegro molto ed animato (B minor)
    This movement follows a type of ternary theme and variation. The variations only change by virtue of the accompaniment, highlighting the piece's "Rimsky-ness" 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 of tonality and structure.[11]
  3. The Young Prince and the Young Princess
    Andantino quasi allegretto – Pochissimo più mosso – Come prima – Pochissimo più animato (G major)
    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.[11]
  4. 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 (E minor – E major)
    This movement ties in aspects of all the preceding movements as well as adding some new ideas, including an introduction of both the beginning of the movement and the Vivace section based on Sultan Shakhriar’s theme, a repeat of the main Scheherazade violin theme,[11] and a reiteration of the fanfare motif to portray the ship wreck.[3] 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 Schahriar theme to the tonic major cadence of the Scheherazade theme resolves in a fantastic, lyrical, and finally peaceful conclusion.[11]


Mikhail Fokine and Vera Fokina in the Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade


The original ballet adaptation of Scheherazade 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. The Ballets Russes' Scheherazade is known for its traditionally dazzling costumes, opulent scenery, and erotic choreography and narrative which was rarely seen in ballets of the time.

At the time of its original creation, Paris was in the final years of the Belle-Époque period. Translated, “Belle-Époque” means “beautiful era”, and was a period of industry and optimism in which “the pursuit of pleasure supposedly eclipsed social, economic, and political concerns.”[14] Orientalism was at the height of its vogue in Europe and Ballets Russes sought to bring the East (or the Westernized stereotype) to the West so audiences could live out their exotic fantasies without fear of social consequences. This ballet provoked exoticism by showing a masculine Golden Slave, danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, seducing Zobeide, danced by Ida Rubinstein, who is one of the many wives of the Shah. Nijinsky was painted gold and is said[citation needed] to have represented a phallus and eroticism is highly present in the orgiastic scenes played out in the background. Controversially, this was one of the first instances of a stage full of people simulating sexual activity. Nijinsky was short and androgynous but his dancing was powerful and theatrical. Scheherazade flipped conventions of classical ballet through the redirection of audiences’ focus from the grace and beauty of female bodies to male prowess and sensuality.[15] As opposed to classical ballets of the time, the choreography of Scheherazade included more sensuous movements including body waves, and closer contact. The Golden Slave also incorporated more rippling and slower, sultry movement as opposed to the large, jump and turn heavy male solos audiences were used to seeing in classical ballets.

When the Shah returns and finds his wife in the Golden Slave's embrace, he sentences to death all of his cheating wives and their respective lovers. It is rumored[citation needed] that in this death scene, Nijinsky spun on his head. The ballet is not centered around codified classical ballet technique but rather around sensuous movement in the upper body and the arms. Exotic gestures are used as well as erotic back bends that expose the ribs and highlight the chest. Theatrics and mime play a huge role in the story telling.

Scheherazade came after Petipa's Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, which were ballets strongly focused on classical ballet and technique. Fokine embraced the idea of diminished technique and further explored this after Scheherazade when he created Petrouchka in 1912. He went on to inspire other choreographers to throw away technique and embrace authenticity in movement.

Bakst, who designed the sets and costumes for Scheherazade, viewed the stage as a three-dimensional landscape in which dancers, sets, and costumes were all of equal importance.[16] At the time he had a big influence on interior design and fashion of that time by using unorthodox color schemes and exotic costuming for the ballet. In his costuming for Scheherazade, he focused on highlighting the movements of the body through his ornate, “histrionic” costumes.[16]

The ballet’s performance and reception in Paris is said to have changed the course of ballet. The Ballets Russes premiered in Paris as the conservative theatres of Russia would not support or approve of the portrayal of such risqué ideas, but in Paris it was a hit.[17] As many of The Ballets Russes’ ballets, Scheherazade, drew in audiences from far and wide. Its costume and scenic designs even inspired and influenced many fashions of the time in years to come.

Rimsky-Korsakov's widow protested against what she saw as the disarrangement of her husband's music in this choreographic drama.[18]

Contemporary ballet adaptations[edit]

Alonzo KingLINES Ballet (2009)[edit]

Alonzo King’s reimagining of Scheherazade was commissioned in 2009 for the Monaco Dance Forum Festival’s centennial celebration of the Ballets Russes. King collaborated with composer Zakir Hussain for the score which incorporates traditional Eastern instruments with melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov’s original symphonic suite.[19]

Contrary to the narrative of the original ballet, in which Scheherazade is just the narrator of the story of Shahryar and Zobeide, Alonzo brings the character of Scheherazade to the forefront of the ballet. She, rather than Zobeide, becomes the principal female character. However, King abstracts the narrative in such a way that his “choreographic focus was not on the details of the Arabian Nights narrative, but the symbolic meaning of Scheherazade.[20] In King’s version, Shahryar and Zobeide’s doomed marriage and the instigator of the thousand and one nights, as narrated by Scheherazade, is no longer the focal plotline. Rather, King focuses on Shahryar’s final relationship with Scheherazade herself and the development of his love for her through her storytelling.

King is known for his boundary pushing, long-lined, dynamic movement aesthetic which is exemplified in Scheherazade. In many of his works, King also seeks to “represent global cultures through dance by collaborative ventures with non-Western movement forms.”[21] Scheherazade is no different, as exemplified by the very grounded movement, reminiscent of that of some Middle Eastern dance styles, that juxtaposes his typical aesthetic within the ballet. In moments throughout the ballet, non-Western forms can be seen through the rhythm of the movement, as well as the quick level changes from grounded to upright. Especially in ensemble sections with precise hand and footwork.

Robert Rosenwasser was the set and costume designer for King’s adaptation. His scenery is simplified from the original ballet’s. For this version, billowing fabrics overhead and a textured backdrop are suited to evoke mood changes as the lighting shifts. Rosenwasser’s ethereal over head lights shift with the dancers from overhead teardrops, to puddles of sand and back as the dance progresses. His costumes continue with the simplified, abstraction of the narrative. They are less reminiscent of the ornate, exotic harems the original ballet portrays and are instead gauzier and lightweight.

Overall, reception for King’s Scheherazade has been positive. SFGate proclaimed, “King has created nothing finer in years."[22]

Jean-Christophe MaillotLes Ballets de Monte Carlo (2009)[edit]

Artistic Director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot, reinterpreted Fokine’s Scheherazade in 2009; the same year Alonzo King premiered his work. Maillot’s adaptation premiered at the Grimaldi Forum Monaco.[23]

Maillot pulled much inspiration from the original staging and choreography of Fokine’s ballet as it was set on the Ballets Russes. His biggest inspiration was the music itself: Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of the same name.[23]

His choreography honors that of the original ballet in its sensuous waves and ripples, as well as its narrative. However, it is also modernized with contemporary, almost jazz-influenced, movements for both male and female characters.

The sets and costumes were designed by Jerome Kaplan. They incorporate some elements directly from the original designs of Leon Bakst, but also strip some away. Both mix ornate and more streamlined designs depending on the characters and settings for the scenes. Maillot combines traditional and modern aesthetics to create a “spectacle” that transcends time.[23] Where in the original ballet, most of the costuming was ornate no matter the character, Kaplan distinguishes between the characters of more importance through brighter color palettes and more intricate designs while the costumes for the corps are simplified.

Critical reviews of the work can be difficult to find. However, in a review of Maillot’s reimagining, Dance Magazine stated, “the results are hot and spicy.”[24]


Sergei Prokofiev wrote a Fantasia on Scheherazade for piano (1926), which he recorded on piano roll.

The film Invitation to the Dance by Gene Kelly uses Scheherazade as dance music in the third story of the movie, the animated segment "Sinbad the Sailor".

Fritz Kreisler arranged the second movement (The Story of the Kalendar Prince) and the third movement (The Young Prince and the Princess) for violin and piano, giving the arrangements the names "Danse Orientale" and "Chanson Arabe", respectively.

In 1959, bandleader Skip Martin adapted from Scheherazade the jazz album Scheherajazz (Sommerset-Records),[25] 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.[clarification needed][26]

Scheherazade is a popular music choice for competitive figure skating. Various cuts, mainly from the first movement, were widely used by skaters, including:

American figure skater Evan Lysacek used Scheherazade in his free skate and won the gold medal at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.[27] It was also used by American ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis in their free dance, with which they won the gold medal at 2014 Winter Olympics.[28]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jacobson, Julius H.; Kevin Kline (2002). The classical music experience: discover the music of the world's greatest composers. New York: Sourcebooks. p. 181. ISBN 978-1-57071-950-9.
  2. ^ Malone, Andrew Lindemann. "Scheherazade, symphonic suite for orchestra, Op. 35". AllMusic. Retrieved 22 November 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d e Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolay Andreyevich (1942). My Musical Life. translated by Judah A. Joffe (3rd edition). Alfred A. Knopf.
  4. ^ a b c d Rimsky-Korsakov (1942:291–94).
  5. ^ Abraham, Gerald, ed. (1990). The New Oxford History of Music, Volume IX, Romanticism (1830–1890). Oxford University Press. pp. 508, 560–62. ISBN 0-19-316309-8.
  6. ^ Lieberson, Goddard (1947). Goddard Lieberson (ed.). The Columbia Book of Musical Masterworks. New York: Allen, Towne & Heath. p. 377.
  7. ^ a b Mason, Daniel Gregory (1918). The Appreciation of Music, Vol. III: Short Studies of Great Masterpieces. New York: H.W. Gray Co. p. 35. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
  8. ^ a b "Scheherazade, Op. 35". The Kennedy Center. Retrieved 2008-10-28.
  9. ^ Taruskin, Richard (1996). Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra. Oxford University Press. p. 740. ISBN 0-19-816250-2.
  10. ^ Phillips, Rick (2004). The essential classical recordings: 101 CDs. Random House, Inc. p. 150. ISBN 0-7710-7001-2.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Griffiths, Steven. (1989) A Critical Study of the Music of Rimsky-Korsakov, 1844–1890. New York: Garland, 1989.
  12. ^ Powers, Daniel (2004). "Scheherazade, op. 35, (1888)". China in Focus, Tianshu Wang, piano. Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra. Archived from the original on March 13, 2016. Retrieved 2008-10-28.
  13. ^ a b Schiavo, Paul. "Program Notes". Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Archived from the original on 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
  14. ^ Caddy, Davinia (2016-10-20). The Ballets Russes and Beyond : Music and Dance in Belle-époque Paris. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-316-62363-3. OCLC 953222267.
  15. ^ Giersdorf, Jens Richard; Wong, Yutian, eds. (2019). The Routledge Dance Studies Reader. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-138-08871-9. OCLC 1038025262.
  16. ^ a b Bowlt, John E. (Summer 1987). "Stage Design and the Ballets Russes". The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts. 5: 28–45. doi:10.2307/1503934. JSTOR 1503934.
  17. ^ "The 20th-Century Ballet Revolution". Victoria and Albert Museum. December 2, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2019.
  18. ^ Programme, Thirty-Eighth Season, Boston: Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1918–1919, p. 829, retrieved 2008-10-30
  19. ^ Sirabian, Stephanie (February 13, 2019). "Alonzo King LINES Ballet: Classic Meets Contemporary at the Joyce Theater". Bach Track.
  20. ^ King, Alonzo (February 16, 2016). "Alonzo King on Creating 'Scheherazade'". Alonzo King LINES Ballet.
  21. ^ Peters, Paula J. (February 2, 2019). "Alonzo King (c. 1952–)". BlackPast.
  22. ^ Ulrich, Allan (February 10, 2012). "Dance Review: Alonzo King's 'Scheherazade' Ballet". SFGate.
  23. ^ a b c "Scheherazade". Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Retrieved November 29, 2019.
  24. ^ Bauer, Karyn (September 16, 2019). "Reviews: Les Ballets de Monte Carlo". Dance Magazine.
  25. ^ Song of Scheherazade.[not specific enough to verify]
  26. ^ Hare, William (2004). L.A. noir: nine dark visions of the City of Angels. McFarland. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-7864-1801-X.
  27. ^ "U.S. figure skater Evan Lysacek wins gold medal". Baltimore Sun.
  28. ^ Jenkins, Sally (February 18, 2014). "Meryl Davis and Charlie White's gasp-inducing performance in winning ice dancing gold". The Washington Post.

External links[edit]