Learning to Listen: Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
January 13, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his symphonic suite, Scheherazade, in 1888.

Based on the Persian collection of stories, One Thousand and One Nights, Rimsky-Korsakov used the orchestra to tell a handful of the tales.

While there are several collections of One Thousand and One Nights, they're all framed from the perspective of one storyteller: a woman named "Scheherazade" and the Sultan to whom she is wed.

This Sultan would marry a new virgin every day, and then send yesterday's wife to be beheaded. He did this out of anger after discovering his first wife had been unfaithful. Scheherazade wanted to change that by telling stories to the Sultan who was mesmerized by them.

At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. By this time the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and had three sons with her. So, having been made a wiser and kinder man by Scheherazade and her tales, he spared her life, and made her his queen.

In the symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov, the Sultan is represented by trombones and tubas. The theme hints at what's known as a whole-tone scale, inspired by sounds of Eastern (Persian) music.

Scheherazade is heard as a solo violin, weaving her tales that mesmerize the Sultan.

Rimsky-Korsakov rarely writes either theme the same, making changes as the story unfolds.

In the closing moments of the suite, you hear the two themes together for the first (and only) time, as the Sultan realizes he's fallen in love with Scheherazade, and will spare her life.

Vienna Phiharmonic, conducted by Valery Gergiev, playing Scheherazade at the 2005 Salzburg Festival:

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