Shéhérazade (Ravel)

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Shéhérazade is the title of two works by the French composer Maurice Ravel. Both have their origins in the composer's fascination with Scheherazade, the heroine and narrator of The Arabian Nights. The first work, an overture (1898), Ravel's earliest surviving orchestral piece, was not well received at its premiere and has not subsequently been among his most popular works. Four years later he had a much greater success with a song cycle with the same title, which has remained a standard repertoire piece and has been recorded many times.

Both settings are influenced by Russian composers, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov, who had written a Scheherazade in 1888. The first composition was heavily influenced by Russian music, the second used a text inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic poem. The musical relation between the overture and the song cycle is tenuous.

Shéhérazade overture[edit]

Shéhérazade, ouverture de féerie, written in 1898 but unpublished during the composer's lifetime (it was only published in 1975), is a work for orchestra planned as the overture for an opera of the same name.[1]

It was first performed at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique on 27 May 1899, conducted by the composer. It had a mixed reception, with boos mingling with applause from the audience, and unflattering reviews from the critics. One described the piece as "a jolting debut: a clumsy plagiarism of the Russian School" and called Ravel a "mediocrely gifted debutant ... who will perhaps become something if not someone in about ten years, if he works hard."[2] This critic was "Willy", Henri Gauthier-Villars, who later became an admirer of Ravel. The composer assimilated Willy's criticism, describing the overture as "a clumsy botch-up",[3] and recognising that it was "quite heavily dominated by the influence of Russian music" (assez fortement dominé par l'influence de la musique russe).[1] Another critic, Pierre Lalo, thought that Ravel showed talent, but was too indebted to Debussy and should instead emulate Beethoven.[4]

A programme note for the first performance, unsigned, but thought to be by the composer, reads:

Constructed in the classical form of the overture, the piece opens with an introduction, in which the theme of Scheherezade is given first by an oboe, and then by the horns and trumpets. Then comes the main part of the overture, consisting of:

  • Part 1: Initial motif, in B minor. Developments – episodic theme (muted trumpets) bringing in the second motif – in F sharp major – inspired by a Persian melody – conclusion of Part 1.
  • Part 2: Development of four themes. Pedal based on the original motif, expanded.
  • Part 3: Return of the first and second motifs heard simultaneously. Return of the introduction, serving as a coda.[1]

The playing time of the piece is about 13 minutes.[5]

Shéhérazade song cycle[edit]

The exoticism of the Arabian Nights continued to interest Ravel. In the early years of the 20th century he met the poet Tristan Klingsor,[6] who had recently published a collection of free-verse poems under the title Shéhérazade, inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite of the same name, a work that Ravel also much admired.[7] Ravel and Klingsor were fellow members of a group of young creative artists calling themselves "Les Apaches" (the Hooligans); the poet read some of his new verses to the group, and Ravel was immediately taken with the idea of setting three of them. He asked Klingsor to make some minor changes before he set to work on the music.[n 1]

Ravel's song cycle Shéhérazade, was composed for soprano solo and orchestra, setting the words of Klingsor's "Asie", "La flûte enchantée", and "L'indifférent". It was first performed on 17 May 1904 at a Société Nationale concert at the Salle Nouveau Théâtre, Paris, with soprano Jeanne Hatto and an orchestra conducted by Alfred Cortot.[8] The three songs of the cycle are individually dedicated by the composer to Jeanne Hatto ("Asie"), Madame René de Saint-Marceaux ("La flûte enchantée") and Emma Bardac ("L'indifférent").[8]

Whether the overture and the song cycle are musically related is debated.[1] According to Ravel's biographer Arbie Orenstein, there is little melodic connection between the overture and the cycle, with the exception of the opening theme of the first song, "Asie", which uses a theme, based on a modally inflected scale, similar to one near the beginning of the overture.[9] Ravel originally conceived the cycle with "Asie" coming last, and this order was adopted at the premiere,[10] but his final preference, in the published score, gives a sequence steadily decreasing in intensity; the critic Caroline Rae writes that the music moves "from rich voluptuousness and gentle lyricism to languid sensuousness".[11]


The first, and longest, song of the three is in the dark key of E flat minor.[11] It typically lasts ten minutes in performance.[12] It is, in Rae's words, "a panorama of oriental fantasy evoking Arabia, India and, at a dramatic climax, China."[11] With the continually repeated words "je voudrais voir…" ("I should like to see…" or "I want to see…"), the poet, or his imagined speaker, dreams of escape from quotidian life into a European fantasy of Asian enticements.[11] The music increases in intensity as his imaginations become more feverish, until subsiding to end placidly, back in the real world.[13]

Asie: text and English translation

La flûte enchantée[edit]

In this song, a young slave girl tending her sleeping master, hears her lover playing his flute outside. The music, a mixture of sad and joyful, seems to her like a kiss flying to her from her beloved. The flute melody is marked by the use of the Phrygian mode.[14]

La flûte enchantée: text and English translation


The final song of the cycle has prompted much speculation. The poet, or his imaginary speaker, is much taken with the charms of an androgynous youth, but fails to persuade him to come into his – or her – house to drink wine. It is not clear whether the boy's admirer is male or female; one of Ravel's colleagues expressed the strong hope that the song would be sung by a woman, as it customarily is.[15][n 2] The song is in E major, with oscillating string motifs in the orchestral accompaniment which, in Rae's view, are reminiscent of Debussy’s Nocturnes.[11]

L'indifférent: text and English translation

Orchestration and duration[edit]

The score is orchestrated for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, cymbals, gong, two harps, and strings.[13]

A typical performance of the cycle takes about 15–16 minutes in total, comprising

  • Asie: 9–10 minutes
  • La flûte enchantée: about 3 minutes
  • L'indifférent: about 3+12 minutes.
Source: Decca 1963 and HMV 1967 recordings.[17]


Notes, references and sources[edit]


  1. ^ Ravel was particularly concerned about the line "En conservant comme Sindbad ma vieille pipe arabe de temps en temps entre mes lèvres" ("Like Sinbad, keeping my old Arab pipe between my lips from time to time"). In Parisian slang, "pipe" had a phallic double-meaning; Klingsor changed the line to have Sinbad raising his Arab cup to his lips.[7]
  2. ^ Both the recordings of the song made in Ravel's lifetime are sung by women; the Ravel scholar Roger Nichols wrote in 2011 that, as far as he knew, no male singer has recorded the song.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d "Shéhérazade: ouverture de féerie" (archived on 31 March 2017 at the Wayback Machine from Archived 2017-09-22 at the Wayback Machine); retrieved 26 June 2015
  2. ^ Orenstein (1991), p. 24
  3. ^ Nichols (1977), p. 12
  4. ^ Nichols (2011), p. 30
  5. ^ "Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade, Ouverture de Féérie", Chandos Records, retrieved 26 June 2015
  6. ^ Orenstein, p. 28
  7. ^ a b Orenstein, p. 40
  8. ^ a b Orenstein, p. 224
  9. ^ Orenstein, p. 148
  10. ^ Nicols (2011), p. 56
  11. ^ a b c d e Rae, Caroline. "Shéhérazade", Philharmonia Orchestra, retrieved 25 June 2015
  12. ^ Blakeman, p. 2
  13. ^ a b Mandel, Marc. "Maurice Ravel – Shéhérazade,Three poems for voice and orchestra", Boston Symphony Orchestra, 27 September 2007
  14. ^ Nichols (2011), p. 55
  15. ^ Nichols (2011), pp. 55–56
  16. ^ Nichols (2011), p. 56
  17. ^ Liner notes to Decca CD 475-7712 (2006), OCLC 690157532 and HMV CD HMV 5-73446-2 (1999)


  • Blakeman, Edward (1990). Notes to Chandos CD 8914. Colchester: Chandos Records. OCLC 28488316.
  • Nichols, Roger (1977). Ravel. Master Musicians. London: Dent. ISBN 978-0-460-03146-2.
  • Nichols, Roger (2011). Ravel. New Haven, US and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10882-8.
  • Orenstein, Arbie (1991) [1975]. Ravel: Man and Musician. Mineola, US: Dover. ISBN 978-0-486-26633-6.

External links[edit]