Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade

Notes by TŌN violinist Grace Choi

Born into a family of nobility, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov proved a bright child growing up in the small town of Tikhvin, about a hundred miles east of St. Petersburg. Although his parents were not music intellectuals, his infant ears would often catch them humming and tinkering opera melodies on the family keyboard. Piano lessons were consistently sporadic and Rimsky’s brilliant memory left him often playing tunes by ear. His serious attention towards music did not begin until his teenage years when he first attended the Russian Opera—fortuitously during the acme of Italian opera.

Rimsky became one of the “Mighty Handful,” a power team of composers which included Balakirev, Borordin, Cui, and Mussorgsky. Also known as the “Russian Five,” they were the embodiment of Russian nationalism in the 19th century, constantly striving to find the Russian classical voice.

Rimsky’s Scheherazade is based on The Arabian Nights, an anthology of 1,001 stories ostensibly narrated by the wise woman, Scheherazade, who is on a mission to save all of the virgins of Persia from imminent doom. The grand Sultan Shakhriar has been permanently injured upon discovery of his beloved wife’s infidelity. In acrimony toward all women, the Sultan marries a virgin every day and executes her the next morning. Scheherazade is determined to end the gruesome cycle and marries the Sultan with a shrewd agenda: she tells him a gripping fable each night but never reaches the conclusion, leaving Shakhriar deathly curious to keep her alive until she reveals it the next morning. Although Rimsky used the tale of The Arabian Nights, he merely wished to coax the listener’s imagination into a fantasy wonderland: “ . . . 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.”

The opening is an explicit leitmotif, indicating our two characters, the Sultan and Scheherazade. This is the chief amalgamating detail which presides throughout the work. The strings double the low brass section and woodwinds to delineate the Sultan’s draconian imperial command, which is seductively answered by Scheherazade, as portrayed on the solo violin. Even up until the finale, Rimsky illustrates the enchanting sequence of tales; Scheherazade takes the final word with the reminiscent motif.