Curiosity rife in the violas once more with this piece. Did we know The Thousand and One Nights well enough to be able to match each movement to one of the tales? Or wasn’t that the point? Well, the title is the point, it turns out, not the tales.
The framework to be familiar: having run out of virgins to be married to the Sultan for one night before he beheaded them (an early trauma of faithlessness having shredded the ruler’s trust in women), his Vizier is reduced to offering his daughter Scheherazade. She is willing, she has a clever idea. This scheme of spinning out stories is a success: she is spared in the morning to continue each evening. Dickens was a beginner at cliffhangers compared to her. At the end of 1001 nights (and three children later), the Sultan’s trust is restored and he marries her, living happily ever after. Roughly speaking – there are many versions, starting in the 8th century in India and China.
The music is framed to reflect this: the threatening Sultan is the very first music heard. By the end it is easy to hear that his theme has mellowed. Scheherazade is the violin hosting each of the four movements. The slightest idea of the stories gives us the flavour of each one, but there is no detailed auditory storytelling to unearth. Rimsky-Korsakov saves us the attempt.
‘All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other…”
The rocking in the first movement comes from Sinbad the Sailor who in the Arabian Nights tells his adventures to Sinbad the Porter – the sea carries him to his adventures.
The second movement is also a composite. It is titled ‘The fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalandar.’ In the medieval Islamic world, a Kalandar was a wandering mystic who led an ascetic lifestyle, relying on charity for his sustenance. The idea of a Kalandar-Prince seems paradoxical. In the Nights, there are in fact three Kalandar Princes and a pattern to them. Each begins life as a prince; through a series of fantastical misfortunes is blinded in one eye and reduced to the scruffy beggary of a Kalandar, and tells his tale. You can’t tell which of the three stories Rimsky-Korsakov had in mind - the music has a sense of adventure that fits them all.
It is also difficult to identify a particular story to go with the third movement, ‘The Prince and the Princess’. This is not a surprise. Love is a common throughout the Nights, and this movement shows Rimsky-Korsakov at his most lyrical. Not everyone has appreciated this tenderness. An early London performance of Scheherazade pleasingly provoked the prudish English press to debate whether this clarinet theme depicted kisses:
This may help to understand why Rimsky-Korsakov was hesitant to provide any detail about his sources of inspiration.
In this movement, Scheherazade’s theme returns not at the beginning but in the middle as if she has paused for a moment to comment on the story. Her violin solo then blends with the music of the prince and princess. The climax that follows is said to represent the young lovers and Scheherazade and Shahryar as well. (The well-bred viola is full of doubt.)
The finale is given the title of “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. Ship Breaks upon a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.” After an introduction from Scheherazade the festival gets going and it is difficult again to identify a specific story to match the festival, but this passage describing the wedding of Scheherazade and Shahryar seems to fit:
“…they decorated the city after the goodliest fashion and diffused scents from censers and burnt aloes-wood and other perfumes in all the markets and thoroughfares while the drums beat and the flutes and pipes sounded and mimes and mountebanks played and plied their arts…”
Earlier tunes appear as this spectacle reaches its climax, the sea music from the first movement returns and we hear a shipwreck (the third Kalandar Prince’s tale hangs on one). The waves subside, Scheherazade rises high above the now low, slumbering melody of Shahryar, rising to the violin’s stratosphere and fading into nothing.
For the Persian and Eastern influence, think that Rimsky-Korsakov was soaked just then in his friend Borodin’s Prince Igor opera that he was finishing after Borodin dropped dead at 53. It’s about invaders from the East, called the Polovtsians. Think also about Saint Basil’s amusing turban (see picture), worn by one of the cathedral’s towers to celebrate the conquest of Astrakhan. This note isn’t a Russian history lesson, but the very strong oriental influence is worth a nod as we listen.