Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is one of my favourite composers; I find his music very evocative. A master of orchestration, some of his best-known works include ‘Russian Easter Festival Overture’ and ‘Capriccio Espagnol’. He also produced operas, from which excerpts are more well-known than the entire operas, for example: ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ from ‘The Tale of Tsar Saltan’, and ‘Song of the Indian Guest’ from ‘Sadko’.
Of all his works that I’m familiar with, the one I favour most is ‘Scheherazade’. Stories from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, also known as ‘The Arabian Nights’, have been familiar to me since childhood. To then find such dazzling music to accompany it was quite exciting.
Rimsky-Korsakov began to compose this orchestral piece during the winter of 1887 while working to complete ‘Prince Igor’, the unfinished opera of Alexander Borodin. It was written to produce a sensation of fantasy narratives from the Orient. [‘The New Oxford History of Music, Volume IX’ – Gerald Abraham]
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 travelled, 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…”
Rimsky-Korsakov conducted the premier of his own music in Saint Petersburg on 28 October 1888. Since then, it has only grown in popularity; not surprising, given its captivating orchestration and oriental flavour.
Personally, I wish he’d written more of it; the entire piece of four movements barely lasts 45 minutes.