Skip to page content

Scheherazade was the legendary author of The Arabian Nights, a collection of Arabian, Indian, and Persian stories written in Arabic between the 14th and 16th centuries. They became well-known in Europe after they were translated into French in the early 1700s, giving the Western world Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, and a lasting cultural and literary cliché: magical, exotic Asia.

The young Ravel was enamored enough with Scheherazade to attempt an opera on the subject. He never completed it, and the only part that remains is an overture. Scheherazade reared her alluring head in another way in 1903, when Ravel was 28 and running with a band of Parisian artistic young turks who called themselves Les Apaches. Another Apache, Arthur Leclère, a writer and painter who went by the very Wagnerian nom de plume Tristan Klingsor, published a book that year of Orient-oriented poems titled Shéhérazade. Ravel immediately set three of the poems to music.

Klingsor thought that Ravel chose to set "Asie," the first poem of the suite, only out of a "love of difficulty," since the undramatic, descriptive nature of the poem "made it appear quite unsuitable for his purpose." Klingsor didn't appreciate what a juicy morsel "Asie" would be for Ravel's impressionist tastebuds. The poem is a travelogue, a highly spiced stew of Western stereotypes about the Fabled East. Ravel's setting is also a travelogue, with the voice a sort of tourist wandering through the scenery that the orchestra paints, notable for its exoticism. The singer's rising invocation of "Asie," introduced by the inevitable oboe in the inevitable "eastern" mode (a scale with a flatted second tone and major third tone, e.g. C-C-sharp-E), introduces a song that sometimes treats the voice in a Wagnerian manner, chanting the words while the orchestra supplies the melodic interest and descriptive touches. The clarinets introduce a motive like a distant horn call that returns often, climactically in the brass before the last verse; shimmering strings evoke both distance and the sea; flutes in parallel harmonies conjure up China.

In "The Magic Flute," the flute plays its tune before, after, and around the singer's nearly static chant, perhaps to show how the narrator is mesmerized. In the "Indifferent One," the tone is entreating (note the pleading drop in the voice when the stranger is asked to enter), languid, and wistful, as if the narrator never really expects anything to happen in this encounter with the young man. Although Shéhérazade has always been sung by women, at least one person close to Ravel said that both Klingsor and Ravel envisioned a man's voice for the part, which would place the piece in a completely different light, making for a mysterious sexuality, like Ravel's own.

- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.

09/07