If there ever was a composer that embodied the “fake it until you make it” saying, this was Rimskij-Korsakov. An amateur composer at first, to his own admission he “could not harmonize a chorale, had never done any exercises in counterpoint, had no idea of a strict fugue, and could not even name the chords and intervals.“
And, mind you, when he pronounced these words he was referring to 1871, the year that brought him an offer to be a professor in Practical composition at St. Petersburg Conservatory. Thanks to his reputation as an “ultra-modern” composer.
He knew very little of orchestration and instrument capabilities, teaching himself just before teaching his students.
He bluffed his way through and managed to become one of the most respected teachers and composers Russia had ever had.
Possessed by a wild imagination he worked his way through symphonies, choral music, songs, piano works, editions of Mussorgsky, Borodin, and folk-songs, and, of course, operas.
He even ended up writing an orchestration manual titled “The revised principles of orchestration“.
Fuelling his inspiration with the exotic adventures of his naval career, Korsakov drew from The Tales of the Arabian Nights for Scheherazade.
In short, the scenario is revealed to us by Korsakov himself, who writes in the preface to the score:
“The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient of recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of one thousand and one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.”
Scheherazade by Édouard Frédéric Wilhelm Richter (1844-1913)
Written in 1888, Scheherazade was originally conceived almost like a symphony in 4 movements: a Prelude, a Ballade, an Adagio, and a Finale.
But Korsakov soon realized that the programmatic nature of the work did not suit the symphony as a form. It is, in fact, a symphonic suite.
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade: an analysis of the 2nd movement
The 2nd movement is the Tale of the Kalandar Prince. In the medieval Islamic world, a Kalandar was a wandering mystic who led an ascetic lifestyle, relying on charity for his sustenance. The title might seem like a paradox. But in the original tale there are 3 characters who began life as princes and through a series of misfortunes, became begging Kalandar.
What we’re not sure about is which one of these 3 princes we’re seeing in the score. But that’s a detail we can live without.
By the way, a reference to the shipwreck present in the third Kalandar Prince’s tale will pop up in the final movement.
The opening is left to Scheherazade’s theme in a fantastic solo violin. This movement is written in a ternary form (ABA) in terms of themes. But in fact, it is a colorful succession of variations.
From a technical point of view this is pretty straight forward: don’t do anything. Leave the solo violin and the harp alone in their intimate dialogue.
Mark the bar of the cadenza and get the entrance of the harp, basses, and bassoon at the Andantino.
There is no doubt where we’re headed: the mystery of the Orient transpires through the solos, not just of the violins but of the woodwinds as well.
The same theme is repeated again with different orchestration: the oboe takes over the line and we now have a clear pulsing rhythm in the cellos and the harp
Korsakov repeats the same theme over and over again: it’s now time for the violins, who increase the tempo a bit
The rhythmic element of the theme takes over in the next variation, played by the woodwinds while the strings strum away in pizzicato chords. This technique imitates the harp but with a much bigger weight
It’s really important for a conductor here to switch between conducting in 1 and conducting in 3 (and sometimes not conducting at all) depending on the accelerando and rallentando.
Suddenly, Sharyar‘s theme pops in.
The drama of this, again, recitative-like part fires up in the tremolos of the violins, and in the solo trombone and trumpet, while the roaring voice of the Sultan is heard in the bassoons and lower strings
The growling grows and is interrupted by Scheherazade seductively singing through a solo clarinet
while the impatience of the Sultan fervidly ferments in the strings: notice that the strings are always in pizzicato here. With the solo part playing ad libitum, they can sound very random as Korsakov writes (only for the strings) without any ritardando or accelerando. It’s an orchestration wonder
Sharyar answers back with his theme, getting more and more agitated. Look at those trills in the second violins and the flute and oboe: how they masterfully depict the excitement!
The tempo gets faster, the orchestration thickens and the temperature rises. It’s a bold march: Sharyar is determined to get what he wants. But Scheherazade stops him again with another cadenza moment
The Sultan tries to resist, popping up in the bass line but notice how Scheherazade weaves her magic in the chromatic passages underlining the Russian song
and reiterating it more vehemently. The bowings marked in the violins accentuate where the weight should go within the phrase. And they’re also an indication for an unwritten but traditional rallentando
After a final repeat of this theme in full orchestra, the atmosphere is toned down, with Scheherazade charming us with the wavy glissando of the harp
With the solos of the flute, horn, violin, and cello we’re yearning for a conclusion to this story.
The Sultan is pushing for it in the low brass of the animato
but Scheherazade keeps her secret, closes the story on a final chord deprived of its third and leaves us hanging in open fifths.
Deciding when Scheherazade is controlling the game and to which extent is a huge part of interpreting this piece, not just in this movement but throughout this entire work.
When is Scheherazade depicted? When is the Sultan? When does it seem like it’s the Sultan but in fact, it could be Scheherazade controlling him? These choices make an impact on how we read the score and on our way to conduct it. And ultimately, on the audience.
In his memoirs, Rimsky-Korsakov makes his intentions even clearer:
“All I had desired was that the listener 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 another.”
He certainly achieved his goal.
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