return to program notes homepage
NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
January 14-15, 2017
91st Season / Beyond the Score
Michael Allsen

Click here to download a "printable" (large-print) version of these notes.

In this performance, we present “Beyond the Score®”—an innovative program developed a few years ago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  We introduced this in Madison in 2014, with a program devoted to Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony.  Tonight, we explore Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral masterpiece Scheherazade. We begin with a multimedia production on with imagery, actors—James and Brenda DeVita from American Players Theatre—and excerpts from the suite itself.  After intermission, we will present a complete performance of Scheherazade.



Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Scheherazade Symphonic Suite, Op.35


Rimsky-Korsakov completed Scheherazade in 1888, during his summer break from his duties at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.   He conducted its premiere in St. Petersburg, on November 9, 1888. The Madison Symphony Orchestra has performed the complete suite four times times previously, in 1941, 1974, 1988, and 2013.  Duration 40:00.


The Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Arabic and Egyptian stories dating from as early as the 10th century.  The framing story is that the Sultan Shahryar, convinced of the infidelity of all women, puts a series of wives to death until the Princess Scheherazade distracts him by telling him one fantastic tale after another, one each night for 1001 nights, and he eventually lays aside his murderous plan. There are many versions of The Thousand and One Nights, but most of the stories, including the voyages of Sinbad and the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, were collected together by the 15th century.  Some, including, the story of Aladdin, were added even later.  19th-century readers were fascinated by exotic settings and fairy-tales and the “Arabian Nights” fills this bill nicely—stories of love, humor, bravery, and magic.  To be sure, most European, American, and Russian readers knew the collection only through carefully-edited translations that avoided the more sexually explicit bits, and accentuated the fairy-tale aspects.  (An exception was the unexpurgated English translation published by Francis Burton in 1885—a highly controversial book in its time.)  The tales served as the basis for innumerable works of art, literature, dance and music.  The most powerful musical treatment is certainly Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral suite Scheherazade, which was composed in 1888.


Rimsky-Korsakov, the great Russian nationalist and leading teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, first conceived of a work on stories from The Thousand and One Nights in the winter of 1887 as he was at work on his completion of Borodin’s Prince Igor. He finished Scheherazade in 1888, during his summer break from his teaching duties—at roughly the same time as he completed his equally famous Russian Easter Overture. In the earliest version, Rimsky-Korsakov gave descriptive titles to Scheherazade’s four sections: I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, II. The Tale of the Kalendar Prince, III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess, and IV. Festival at Bagdad. The Sea. The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by the Bronze Statue of a Warrior. Conclusion. He was uncomfortable with a strictly programmatic interpretation, however, and before publishing the work, considered replacing the titles of the four movements with less picturesque designations: Prelude, Adagio, Ballade, and Finale. Rimsky-Korsakov did away with movement-titles altogether in the published version of the suite, but by this time the original descriptive titles were well known. He actually managed to have it both ways, however, as he later wrote in his autobiography:


“In composing Scheherazade, I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer's fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions as to the will and mood of each movement.  All that I desired was that, if the listener liked my piece as symphonic music, he should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some varied fairy-tale wonders, and not merely four pieces played one after the other, and composed on the basis of themes common to all of the four movements.  Why then, if this is the case, does my suite bear the specific title of Scheherazade?  Because this name and the title The Arabian Nights connote in everybody's mind the East and fairy-tale marvels—besides, certain details of the musical exposition hint at the fact that all of these are various tales of some one person (which happens to be Scheherazade) entertaining therewith her stern husband.”


Rimsky-Korsakov was an acknowledged master of scoring music for orchestra (his Principles of Orchestration is still one of the standard works on the subject)—for him, “...orchestration is part of the very soul of the work.”  Scheherazade may well be his masterwork in this regard—are few other works that make such effective use of orchestral color.  The Sea and Sinbad's Ship begins with a pair of themes that recur in all four movements, an angry theme from the trombones (the voice of the Sultan?) and a seductive violin solo, which despite all of Rimsky-Korsakov's circumlocutions, must represent Scheherazade herself.  The body of the movement is distinctly aquatic, with a broad 6/4 theme that suggests the rolling of the waves. 


There are several princes in the collection who disguise themselves as kalendars—roving holy men. After the violin announces a new story, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of the Kalendar Prince begins with a series of quiet, oriental-sounding woodwind solos, expanding into a dance for the full string section.  A bold pronouncement from the solo trombone suddenly changes the mood, and the movement ends in what sounds like an extended battle scene, alternating Scheherazade's theme with more warlike music.  The next movement is a gentle contrast: The Young Prince and the Young Princess is a nostalgic interlude, with a rich dance melody (derived from Scheherazade's theme) above a shimmering background, and a hint of oriental percussion.  Scheherazade herself appears briefly, before the movement ends with a lush coda.


The finale begins with boisterous and sometimes frantic festival music that alternates with Scheherazade's sinuous theme.  The broad Sinbad music of the first movement returns in the trombones, but now the woodwinds provide the howling of hurricane winds, until a moment of crashing disaster.  The movement ends with a quiet epilogue for solo violin, as Scheherazade concludes the tale.


program notes ©2016 by J. Michael Allsen

updated 6/19/16