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Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, and triangle), harp, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 7, 1921, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
It is an ancient and reliable image: a storyteller entrancing an audience gathered around a communal fire, all attention drawn in by “once upon a time” and clinging to every turn of “what happened next.” It is the reason that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade has been an audience favorite since its completion in 1888. In a musical style that defined the Technicolor Widescreen Movie Epic, before there was Technicolor or even movies, Rimsky-Korsakov seized on that greatest of tall tales, The 1001 Arabian Nights. In the composer’s own words:
“The Sultan Shahriar, persuaded of the falseness and the faithlessness of women, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in tales she told him during one thousand and one nights. Pricked by curiosity, the Sultan put off his wife’s execution from day to day, and at last gave up entirely his bloody plan.
“The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite: the sea and Sinbad’s ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalendar, the Prince and the Princess, the Bagdad festival and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it.
“In composing Scheherazade I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that this is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other….”
Apart from Scheherazade’s incarnation in the voice of the solo violin which calms the menacing brass fanfares of the Sultan, binds the sections together, and finally embraces the Sultan in peace, we should not try to connect any specific details from the stories with the musical events which ensue. The composer knew that given an exotic environment in which to thrive, the listeners’ imaginations would weave far more fantastical tales than he could possibly contrive from attempts at any singular depictions. Music, in this case, goes beyond the words.
A final nicety. After accepting the congratulations of his friends backstage following the premiere of his Second Concerto, Prokofiev was enticed to return to the hall to listen to the final piece on the program. It was Scheherazade. Years later, in 1926, he would preserve for posterity on a Duo-Art piano roll, his spontaneous translation of themes from Scheherazade to the solo piano. A Fantasia Arrangement it is called. And by the glow of our contemporary communal campfire, the computer screen, you can now listen to this re-telling of the musical tale. It can be found on YouTube.
Grant Hiroshima is the Executive Director of a private foundation and the former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.