Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”
Notes by TŌN flutist Danielle Maeng
The Exotic and Enticing
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov takes listeners on a captivating adventure in his four-movement symphonic suite Scheherazade. Inspired by the tales from The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade remains Rimsky-Korsakov’s most recognized work. When translators began publishing these old tales from Egypt, India, and Persia, Europeans who would never experience the East first-hand were provided with a vivid look into the wonders of “the Orient.” The exoticism of the East, brimming with undiscovered sounds alongside foreign yet enticing scents and spices, has continued to inspire and intrigue Western composers for centuries.
Scheherazade and the Sultan
Rimsky-Korsakov focuses on the tales of Scheherazade, an enchanting storyteller who avoided execution by her merciless husband, Sultan Shakriar, with her captivating tales that spanned over 1,001 nights. Her storytelling ranged from poems, folk songs, and fairytales that kept the Sultan thoroughly engaged and thirsting for more. Make sure to listen for the abrupt and angular motive of the Sultan in the opening of the first movement, contrasted by the seductive and beguiling motive of Scheherazade embodied through the solo violin. These two motives continuously appear throughout the suite, magnifying the dramatic tension between these two figures. Although Rimsky- Korsakov originally gained inspiration from the tales of The Arabian Nights, he never intended for the piece to perfectly depict a storyline. Rather, he described the piece as “a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images,” insisting it is a non-linear narrative.
An Enthralling Journey
Scheherazade was one of the first major orchestral pieces I performed as a budding young flutist. Its ability to take both listener and performer on an enthralling journey into a quasi-magical realm makes it one of my favorite pieces to perform.