Symphonic Suite, “Scheherazade” (after “The Thousand Nights ‘and a Night”), Opus 35
1. The Sea and Sindbad’s Ship
II. The Story of the Kalandar-Prince
III.The Young Prince and the Young Princess
IV. Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship goes to pieces on a Rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior. Conclusion.
Everything conspired to make of Rimsky-Korsakoff a magician of the orchestra and an unsurpassed spinner of musical yarns. As a composer he belonged to the famous group whose purpose it was to base their works upon Russian folklore, folk-melody and popular artistic expression characteristic of their native land. In this material of folk-music and legend, the Oriental element, while not all-pervading, was very potent, so that Jean Marnold remarked that over Rimsky-Korsakoff Oriental monody seemed to cast a spell. While this does not hold true of all Rimsky-Korsakoff’s music, it is extremely characteristic of such works as the “Antar” symphony and the “Scheherazade” symphonic suite.
As a musician, in his transformation of themes and wizardry of orchestral color, Rimsky-Korsakoff was especially indebted to Berlioz and Lisztnot to Wagner and not to any of the symphonists of the German school. With his associates, Balakireff, Borodin, Cui and Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff believed that the German symphonic method was not characteristic of the Russian spirit of which he sought in his music to be a true representative. The objectives of this famous group variously known as “the Cabinet,” “The Five,” or, in their own gallant phraseology, “The Invincible Band,” were achieved in music unmistakably Russian in idiom and color and fantasy.
Perhaps a phase of personal experience also contributed indirectly to the character of pages of the “Scheherazade” music. This was Rimsky-Korsakoff’s experience of the sea. For he was a naval officer in his youth, having worked his way up from the rank of midshipman. He knew the oceans. He even visited the United States in 1862, and during that voyage sketched his first and rather inconsequential symphony. It should be added, however, that the sea Rimsky-Korsakoff portrays is neither that of Sandy Hook nor of Boston Harbor. It is an affair of the Bospdrous and the Golden Horn. Its waters are inhabited by monsters and sirens. They are subject to strange spells. A ship may here find itself being trans-ported on the back of a whale or it may be smashed into a thousand fragments by colliding with the Rock surmounted by the Bronze Warrior. In short, this is the sea which laved the shores where Scheherazade lived and where she saved her neck for a thousand and one nights by her incredible tales.
I had the right preparation for hearing the music of “Scheherazade” when it was more novel in America than it is today. There was first the rich and fantastical cover design of the piano duet arrangement of which a copy, by chance, had crossed the seas and landed in my lap. This design, with its mosaics was delightfully evocative of mosque and minaret, crescents and scimitars, and the deep hard colors of the old ikons. And then I knew the opening lines of Pushkin’s prologue to “Russlan and Ludmilla”–Pushkin, the well-spring, as one may say, not only of Russia’s poetry but of that national essence which was to permeate a national art school of composition and find its way into Rimsky-Korsakoff’s music. Those lines, as translated by Madame N. Jarintzova, run like this:
Near the sea-cove an oak is growing; Around that oak a golden chain: Along that chain Sir Cat-the-knowing Doth ever walk and walk again.
Goes to the righta song he chanted, Goes to the lefta tale he tells Tis wonderland there wood fiend haunteth And Mermaid ‘mid the branches dwells. There are strange paths, the spoor-betraying Of beasts that to no eye appear; A but on chickens’ legs, displaying No windows and no doors, is here. The dale and forest teem with visior At early dawn, with neat precision.
The waves upon the beach unfold.
And thirty warriors young and splendid File from the lucid deep attended By their sea-guardian grave and old.
There I have been; there I drank mead, Saw the green oak near sea-cove growing, And sat beneath; Sir Cat-the-knowing Did with his wondrous tales proceed.
The four movements of “Scheherazade,” the symphonic suite after “The Thousand Nights and a Night,” are bound together by two representative themes, repeated and variously transformed as by a wave of the magician’s wand in the course of the composition. First is the formidable pronouncement of the trombones, the magician’s formula, the word of command. To this motive wind instruments respond with worshipful harmonies. And now the solo violinthe voice of Scheherazade, wheedling, beguiling, fantastically preluding her tale. The first one is the story of a voyage of Sindbad the Sailor.” This, at least, is the caption that the composer put over the music. We need not take it too seriously. We may imagine much what we please. The imaginative character of the headings placed over passages of the score shows that Rimsky-Korsakoff’s purpose was rather to suggest the color and atmosphere of his fantasy than to bind us literally to any specific incident. But in this music it is easy to conceive the sound and the sight of the sea: the rocking of the boat on the waters; the scream of wind in the rigging; even, if you like, the splash of a wave against the hull. Or am I too willing to believe the old enchanter? By a few passes of his wand, by the transformation under your very nose of the trombone motive of the introduction he evolves, by hocus pocus, what yott may believe to be the picture of the tossing waters. And this motive, this sorcerer’s device, works its marvels through the whole score. It companions the adventure of the Kalardar-Prince; it vibrates amid the din and commotion of the bazaars of the fair; it becomes at last the triumphant chant and eternal menace of the sea which sent Prince Ajib’s ship to destruction.
What happens to the Kalandar-Prince on his ad-ventures may not be specifically known to us. There is more than one “Kalandar” in the Arabian Nights. Sometimes it is a porter; sometimes a prince in disguise. The translation of the tales by Sir Richard Bur-ton will tell you more about ‘them than I dare. This particular tale of the orchestra begins with the rakish narrative of the solo bassoona phrase yott might hear mongered by a merchant squatting in his bazaar; a ditty that might have fallen on the ears of Haroun-al-Raschid when he wandered disguised through the streets of Baghdad. But this is only the beginning of the queer yarn. Trumpet-calls sound from near by and are answered from afar. Cavalcade:; file off to war. In the desert anything can happen. There are subdued petitions of terrified suppliants in the chords of the plucked strings, and responses f rom wind instruments that wail strangely. Or, perchance, a service in the mosque?
“The Prince and the Princess.” Againwhich ones? This is an Oriental love song, set forth by an orchestra which simply splashes color, decorated with sweeps of the harps and unbelievable clarinets and flutes which fly up and down the scale, and fantastic figures of the stringsdrawing, as it were, the long bow!
And now, in the final movement, hear the odd rhythms, the thrummings, the cries, the shrillings of wind-instruments at an Oriental festivalan intoxicating and previously unimagined series of effects. Feel the dizzy acceleration of the ship doomed to destruction, and the crash of the impact; and now the sea music of the first movement, roared out by the trombones; with clashing cymbals and waves of orchestral tone which mount over the hymning brass as a great wave mounts and breaks over the swimmer’s head…. At last the ocean has calmed. The sea motive heaves deep in the basses of the orchestra, while above the jeweled orchestration gives us colors like those of a sunset sky. Once more Scheherazade triumphs as the solo violin ascends in the orchestra, and the wind instruments repeat the worshipful harmonies of the introductionSalaam Aleikum!Homage to Rimsky, the old sorcerer, and his power.