Rimsky-Korsakov based his Scheherazade on the Arabic collection of fairy tales The Thousand and One Nights, in whose framing device the Sultan Shahriar, deeming all women faithless after being betrayed by his most trusted wife, has one member of his harem brought to him each evening and executed the following morning. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, concocts a plot whereby her life will be spared. She tells the Sultan a new story each night for a thousand and one nights, never revealing the story’s conclusion until the following evening. The Sultan, unable to contain his curiosity about the outcome of these enchanting tales, delays her execution from day to day. Eventually, during this long process, the Sultan falls in love with Scheherazade and abandons his brutal plan. We may assume that they lived happily ever after.
In his autobiography, My Musical Life (1909), Rimsky writes: “the titles for the four individual sections… were intended only as hints to direct but slightly the individual listener…. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is an oriental narrative of some numerous fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on themes common to all four movements.
“Why then, if that be the case, doess the suite bear the name of Scheherazade? Because this name and the title The Arabian Nights connote in everybody’s mind the East and fairy-tale wonders; besides, certain details of the musical exposition hint at the fact that all of these are various tales of some one person (who happens to be Scheherazade) entertaining therewith her stern husband.”
There are two major recurring musical motifs in the suite, both introduced in its opening measures: those of the Sultan – low brass and woodwinds, supported by the strings – and the seductively sinuous theme of Scheherazade, more often than not “portrayed” by the solo violin. The work ends not with the shipwreck, but with a gentle solo violin epilogue: a vision of Scheherazade herself, who had many more tales to spin.
The first performance of Scheherazade was given in November of 1888 in Saint Petersburg. The composer conducted.
— Herbert Glass