Conducted by Pietari Inkine, the Philharmonique de Radio France performs Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35, a symphonic suite composed in 1888 and based on One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights), a collection of Middle Eastern folktales compiled in the Arabic language during the Islamic Golden Age.

Conducted by Pietari Inkine, the Philharmonique de Radio France performs Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Op. 35, a symphonic suite composed in 1888 and based on One Thousand and One Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights), a collection of Middle Eastern folktales compiled in the Arabic language during the Islamic Golden Age.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade

Few composers have been able to paint the Orient with as much joy as Rimsky-Korsakov in Scheherazade. At the time he began composing this symphonic suite, the 44-year-old musician was an essential figure in Saint Petersburg. Professor at the Conservatory since 1871, deputy director of the Imperial Chapel, he had directed the Russian Symphony Concerts for two years and had just triumphed with his Spanish Capriccio, op. 34.

Having already demonstrated his taste for legends and the oriental imagination with his symphonic poem Sadko (1867) and his second symphony Antar (1875), he drew for Scheherazade from the legendary collection of The Thousand and One Nights. Betrayed by his wife, Sultan Schahriar (Shahryar) decided to marry a new girl every evening and have her strangled in the early morning in order to guard against any infidelity.

To put an end to this carnage, the beautiful and courageous Scheherazade, daughter of the grand vizier, gets married to the sultan and imagines telling him the beginning of a tale that will captivate him enough for him to spare her life in order to hear the rest the following night.

She keeps him in suspense for a thousand and one nights, until he definitively renounces his dark design: “Many wonders were told to Schahriar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her stories, she borrowed their verses from poets, and their words from popular songs, and she interspersed the stories and adventures one within the other.”

Scheherazade and Shahryar (One Thousand and One Nights) by the French painter Marie-Éléonore Godefroid (1778 - 1849)
Scheherazade and Shahryar (One Thousand and One Nights) by the French painter Marie-Éléonore Godefroid (1778 – 1849)

This is the argument given by Rimsky-Korsakov in the brief “program” of his symphonic suite which forms, according to his intention, “a kaleidoscope of images and oriental fairy drawings” inspired by scattered episodes from the Arabian Nights. Initially planning to soberly title the four movements Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale, Rimsky-Korsakov then gave them evocative titles, before deciding to delete them. Since then, it has become customary to reinstate them.

Taking up the idea of the story within the story, the score opens with the theme of the formidable sultan, a powerful unison that will reappear at a more lively tempo at the start of the fourth movement. It is followed by the Scheherazade theme, a solo violin recitative accompanied by the harp, all in seductive arabesques, which embodies the fascinating storyteller. This will return, always to the violin, at the beginning or during the following movements. As for the other themes, they are in no way leitmotifs with a precise meaning as we find in most symphonic poems, but “purely musical material”.

Transformed and developed over the course of the four movements, they correspond each time, according to the author, “to different images, actions, and representations”. However, we will not fail to notice the return of the sea motif in the finale, which recalls that Rimsky-Korsakov had been a sailor in his youth. The themes personifying the two main characters undergo the same treatment.

At the start of the second movement, that of Scheherazade gives birth to a new theme, in the bassoon, as if the voice of Prince Kalender was taking over the story. It also reappears at the end of the work, followed by that of the “defeated” sultan in the bass, before a final reprise completed in a radiant E major, soft and triumphant at the same time.

Magician of the orchestra, Rimsky-Korsakov models it according to the episodes of the score, passing from gleaming tutti of multiple colors for the evocation of fanfares, parties, and shipwrecks, to an almost chamber writing to draw the silhouette of the beautiful storyteller in the privacy of the sultan’s bedroom. Scheherazade exerted a fruitful influence in the 20th century.

Given in Paris in 1899 at the Concerts Lamoureux, the score impressed Debussy and Ravel who remembered it in La Mer and Daphnis et Chloé. In 1910, Michel Fokine turned it into a ballet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on the stage of the Palais Garnier – a spectacle that delighted the French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and whose echo can be found in In Search of Lost Time.


1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

The first movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” titled “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” serves as a magnificent opening to this symphonic suite, setting the stage for the musical journey that follows. This movement is characterized by its vivid orchestration and thematic development, which vividly evoke the rolling waves of the sea and the majestic journey of Sinbad’s ship as imagined through the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

The movement begins with the evocative “Scheherazade” theme, played by the solo violin, which introduces the storyteller herself. This theme is delicate, lyrical, and imbued with a sense of anticipation, representing Scheherazade as she begins to weave her tales. The solo violin, with its expressive capabilities, is perfectly suited to embodying the character of Scheherazade, offering a personal and intimate introduction to the suite.

Following this introduction, the music transitions into the main theme of the movement, which represents the sea and Sinbad’s ship. The theme is grand and expansive, with the orchestration masterfully capturing the essence of the sea’s vastness and the adventurous spirit of Sinbad’s voyages. The use of the orchestra here is particularly notable for its dynamic range and the coloristic effects Rimsky-Korsakov employs to paint a musical picture of the undulating waves and the ship’s progress through the waters.

Throughout the movement, Rimsky-Korsakov utilizes a wide array of orchestral textures and techniques to depict the sea’s different moods and the ship’s encounters. The music ebbs and flows, with moments of calm beauty, contrasted with passages of intense drama, mirroring the unpredictable nature of the sea and the adventures that lie in wait.

The thematic material introduced in the first movement is developed and varied as the movement progresses, with the orchestra exploring a range of sonorities and harmonies. Rimsky-Korsakov’s skill in orchestration is on full display, with each section of the orchestra contributing to the overall tapestry of sound. The movement builds to a climax that is both thrilling and majestic, before concluding with a return to the Scheherazade theme, reminding the listener of the narrative framework that binds the suite together.

“The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” is a testament to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ability to evoke vivid imagery through music, setting the tone for the rest of “Scheherazade” with its captivating blend of melody, harmony, and orchestration. The movement not only establishes the thematic and musical motifs that will recur throughout the suite but also demonstrates the composer’s mastery of the symphonic form and his unique ability to tell a story through instrumental music.

2. The Story of the Kalendar Prince

The second movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” entitled “The Story of the Kalendar Prince,” continues the suite’s musical journey with a narrative that is both dynamic and emotionally rich. This movement delves into the adventures and misfortunes of the Kalendar Prince, a character derived from the tales of “One Thousand and One Nights.” It’s marked by its distinct thematic development, intricate orchestration, and the way it conveys the story’s drama and character through instrumental music.

Opening with a mysterious and somewhat ominous theme, the movement immediately sets a tone of intrigue and anticipation. This introduction serves as a musical portrayal of the Kalendar Prince’s tumultuous life, suggesting the unfolding of a tale filled with both wonder and hardship. The solo violin, reprising its role as Scheherazade’s voice, weaves through the movement, providing a cohesive narrative thread and reminding the listener of the storytelling context.

The movement is characterized by a series of contrasting themes that represent different aspects of the Kalendar Prince’s story. These themes are introduced, developed, and intertwined in a way that mirrors the narrative’s complexity and the emotional depth of the character’s experiences. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration shines in this movement, utilizing the orchestra’s full range to create vivid musical images. The use of woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion in various combinations produces a rich palette of sounds and colors, effectively evoking the settings and moods of the Prince’s adventures.

One of the most striking features of this movement is its use of melody to convey character and emotion. The Kalendar Prince’s theme is both expressive and memorable, capturing the essence of his character-his nobility, his trials, and his resilience. This theme undergoes various transformations throughout the movement, reflecting the Prince’s journey and the changing circumstances he encounters.

The second movement also showcases Rimsky-Korsakov’s mastery of musical form and his ability to create a cohesive narrative structure through instrumental means. The development of thematic material, the orchestral textures, and the dynamic contrasts all contribute to the movement’s storytelling. The music moves through episodes of tension and release, with moments of lyrical beauty juxtaposed against passages of dramatic intensity, mirroring the highs and lows of the Prince’s tale.

“The Story of the Kalendar Prince” is a testament to Rimsky-Korsakov’s skill as a musical storyteller and his innovative approach to composition. Through his imaginative orchestration and thematic development, he brings the Prince’s story to life in a way that is both engaging and deeply moving. This movement not only advances the narrative of “Scheherazade” but also stands as a brilliant example of program music, in which the orchestra becomes a medium for storytelling without words.

As with the rest of the suite, the second movement of “Scheherazade” invites listeners to immerse themselves in the music and the stories it evokes, highlighting the universal power of narrative and the expressive possibilities of the symphonic form. The detailed musical depiction of the Kalendar Prince’s adventures underscores Rimsky-Korsakov’s ability to transcend cultural and temporal boundaries, creating a work that resonates with audiences around the world.

3. The Young Prince and the Young Princess

The third movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” titled “The Young Prince and The Young Princess,” shifts the suite’s narrative to a more intimate and lyrical realm, portraying the tender and romantic story of two young lovers. This movement is distinguished by its evocative melodies, lush orchestration, and the emotional depth it brings to the overall suite. It stands in contrast to the adventurous and dramatic episodes depicted in the preceding movements, focusing instead on the beauty of love and the idyllic scenes shared by the young couple.

The movement opens with a gentle, enchanting theme introduced by the strings, setting a scene of tranquility and affection. This theme, representing the young prince and princess, is one of the most memorable melodies in the entire suite, capturing the essence of youthful romance and the dreamlike quality of their love story. The theme is tender and sweeping, evoking images of an idealized, romanticized East, in keeping with the exotic settings of “One Thousand and One Nights.”

Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration in this movement is masterful, employing a rich palette of colors to paint the emotional landscape of the young lovers’ tale. The use of woodwinds, harps, and strings, in particular, contributes to the movement’s lush, atmospheric quality. The interplay between the solo instruments and the full orchestra creates a dialogue that mirrors the interaction between the two protagonists, adding layers of nuance and depth to the musical portrayal of their relationship.

As the movement progresses, the main theme undergoes various transformations, reflecting the changing moods and scenes of the love story. These variations allow Rimsky-Korsakov to explore different orchestral textures and harmonic colors, showcasing his ability to evoke a wide range of emotions through instrumental music. Despite the thematic variations, the movement maintains a sense of coherence and unity, with the initial theme serving as a recurring motif that ties the narrative together.

The emotional climax of the movement comes with a full, rich orchestration of the main theme, highlighting the depth of the young lovers’ passion and the intensity of their emotional connection. This climactic moment is both uplifting and poignant, capturing the timeless and universal nature of love.

“The Young Prince and The Young Princess” is a testament to Rimsky-Korsakov’s skill in creating music that is not only beautiful but also rich in narrative and emotional content. This movement, with its focus on romance and the idealized depiction of love, adds a significant emotional dimension to “Scheherazade,” contrasting with the adventurous and dramatic elements of the other movements. It showcases the composer’s versatility and his ability to evoke a broad spectrum of moods and images through his orchestration and thematic development.

4. Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman

The fourth and final movement of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” titled “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman,” serves as a dramatic and exhilarating conclusion to the suite. This movement masterfully combines themes of celebration and calamity, intertwining the festive atmosphere of Baghdad with the tumultuous journey of Sinbad’s ship, ultimately culminating in a dramatic climax that echoes the suite’s overarching themes of adventure and storytelling.

This movement is characterized by its vivid orchestration and dynamic contrasts, reflecting the bustling energy of a festival in Baghdad as well as the powerful forces of nature at sea. Rimsky-Korsakov employs a wide array of musical motifs and textures to depict the varied scenes within the movement, showcasing his exceptional skill in orchestration and thematic development.

The movement begins with a lively and rhythmic theme that suggests the excitement and vibrancy of a festival. The music is rich with Middle Eastern influences, featuring ornamental melodies and rhythmic patterns that evoke the cultural setting of Baghdad. This festive theme is interspersed with references to the Scheherazade theme, reminding listeners of the narrative framework of the suite and the storyteller’s presence.

As the movement progresses, the music transitions to depict the sea, reintroducing themes associated with Sinbad’s ship. The orchestration captures the majesty and peril of the sea, with sweeping melodies and surging rhythms that convey the ship’s journey through tumultuous waters. The music’s intensity builds, reflecting the escalating danger as the ship approaches its doom.

The climax of the movement-and the suite as a whole-occurs as the ship breaks against a cliff surmounted by a bronze horseman, a moment depicted with dramatic musical force. The orchestra reaches a peak of intensity, with crashing chords and explosive dynamics that evoke the ship’s destruction. This moment is both thrilling and tragic, serving as a powerful conclusion to Sinbad’s adventures.

Following this dramatic climax, the movement concludes with a return to the Scheherazade theme, now serene and reflective. This closing passage serves as an epilogue to the suite, bringing the listener back to the storyteller herself. The music fades into a peaceful conclusion, leaving a sense of wonder and contemplation.

In this movement, Rimsky-Korsakov demonstrates his mastery of the symphonic form, his innovative use of orchestral color, and his ability to weave together diverse musical themes into a cohesive and impactful narrative. The “Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman” stands as a brilliant example of program music, where the orchestra transcends its traditional role to become a vivid storyteller, captivating listeners with tales of far-off lands and epic adventures.


M. Özgür Nevres

Published by M. Özgür Nevres

I am Özgür Nevres, a software engineer, a former road racing cyclist, and also an amateur musician. I opened to share my favorite music. I also take care of stray cats & dogs. This website's all income goes directly to our furry friends. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, so I can help more animals!

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