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In his autobiography, My Musical Life , Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) says that as a teenager he did not understand the music of either Liszt or Wagner. However, the adoption of such Lisztian and Wagnerian elements into his mature compositions as chromaticism and thematic transformation suggests that the avid Russian nationalist came to understand very well indeed the procedures and style of both the Hungarian and the German.
The nature of Rimsky’s creativity evolved slowly, for the young Russian had to divide his time between music and a primary career. Because music as a profession had not achieved social respectability in his country, Rimsky entered naval college at the age of 12, became an officer, and spent three years at sea, and for a dozen years was Inspector of Naval Bands. But music was always a strong force in his life, and during the time he was in the navy, he pursued musical studies. His first symphony was begun before his tour of duty, and at the age of 27 (in 1871), when, according to his own admission he was still a dilettante, he accepted a post as professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
If Rimsky-Korsakov allowed some non-Russian elements entry into his musical consciousness, they still had to coexist with the most dominant force in his creative life, Russian nationalism. Along with his cohorts in the “Mighty Handful” (Cui, Balakirev, Borodin, and Mussorgsky), Rimsky sought the roots of his country’s folk music and, finding them, clothed his discoveries in superb orchestral garb. Master manipulator of orchestral instruments that he was, Rimsky very often provided his non-concerto symphonic works with concerto-like instrumental parts. In Schéhérazade the focus is on various individual instruments, but the most prominent solo part is given to the violin. Otherwise, there is no more to Schéhérazade than meets the ear. It is a gorgeous tapestry of sound which verifies the composer’s estimate of art as “essentially an enchanting, intoxicating lie.” Written during a short period of time in the summer of 1888, the work “depicts unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights in a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character” (Rimsky).
The composer denied the existence of a specific program for the work, explaining that most of the melodies do service for a variety of unrelated situations and moods, and in a subsequent edition he even disposed of the descriptive headings he had originally given to the movements. These headings, however, obviously are applicable in a general way, having guided the composer in his storytelling, and they are almost invariably assigned to the sections of the suite: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship; II. The Tale of the Kalendar Prince; III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess; IV. Festival at Baghdad.
Two themes bind the work together: the sinuous violin melody depicting Schéhérazade spinning her tales, which enters after a few measures into the first movement, and the very opening theme, portraying, at least at this point in the score, the menacing Sultan, whose intention to slay his wives (after their first night’s service) the Sultana’s stories are intended to divert.
But, far more crucial to an enjoyment of Schéhérazade than a catalog of events and motifs is the ability of the listener to bathe in the richness of the sonorities – in the exotic swirls of Oriental-flavored melodies, in the music’s Russian folklorish design of repetition and variation, in short, to be drugged by Rimsky’s intoxicating lies.
— Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the program book.