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Scheherazade, symphonic suite

Updated: Oct 4, 2023

Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) wrote the symphonic suite "Scheherazade" in less than a month. His inspiration came from the collection of Middle Eastern tales “One Thousand and One Nights”.

femme orientale, conte arabe, Scheherazade, sultan, mer, bateau, clé. Sand artist : Katerina Barsukova, sand drawing
Scheherazade - Katerina Barsukova, sand drawing


Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the symphonic suite "Scheherazade" in less than a month. His inspiration came from the collection of the Middle Eastern tales “One Thousand and One Nights”. This monument of literature, based on the folklore of India, Iran and the Arab peoples, became widely known in the 17th century. The collection was translated into Russian from French in the years 1760-1770. Rimsky-Korsakov became the first composer who was not afraid to refer to this work. At the time, she shocked many by her brutality and excessive frankness in some episodes.

Initially, each part had a title partially revealing its content, but in the first edition the titles disappeared at the request of the composer. Thus, it is still difficult to know which parts of the «Scheherazade» tales are at the heart of the rest.

In letters to a close friend Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov admitted that the idea of an orchestral suite based on the story “One Thousand and One Nights” had been born to him a long time ago, but he decided to start only in 1888. According to the composer, the first bars were given to him with great difficulty, but he soon succeeded in realizing his ideas in music.

Nikolay Andreyevich was pleased with this, as writing activities have recently been put aside.

The fact is that in the 1980s Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most demanded and popular musical figures. On his shoulders rested the work of a professor of the St.Petersburg Conservatory, and the participation in the management of the court Cappella, and the composer completed many scores of his musical friends.

For the first time, “Scheherazade” was presented in October 1888. The composer himself conducted the orchestra for the musical series Mitrofan Belayev “Russian Symphony Concert”. Rimsky-Korsakov was Principal Conductor and Musical Director of the series until 1900.

Concert de Katerina Barsukova, sand artist, avec l'orchestre Sinfonia Varsovia à Varsovie. Opera Narodowa. Scheherazade. N. Rimski-Korsakov
Shéhérazade - Katerina Barsukova, dessin sur sable, Opera Narodowa, Varsovie

Part by part

Initially “Scheherazade” was written by the author as a classic suite, that is why each part of it received its own development and title. But after the composer refused to name parts in favor of numbering, the work looked more like a symphony. Hence, the full name is “Scheherazade”, symphonic suite.

The suite is composed of four parts, which are complete separate episodes, but combined by some leitmotivs. For example, the theme of Sultan Shahriar, as it is commonly called, is represented by the formidable sharp unisons of brass and strings. The theme of “Scheherazade”, on the other hand, is expressed by a solo violin accompanied by a harp: it charms and fascinates, making you listen to the oriental sonic ruse. Both themes will change as the story progresses, but they will remain recognizable even at the end, when Shahriar’s heart softens and the music changes of mood.

The first part was named by the author “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”. The introduction was marked by the appearance of Shahriar, then the narrator herself - Scheherazade. Then comes the turn of the maritime theme - the strings are completed by wind chords, transmitting the waves, then the soft flute paints the course of the ship across the sea. The storm develops by the alarming noise of the strings, the loud cries of the wind, weaving themes into the chaos of the storm.

The second part “The Kalandar Prince” begins with the theme of the main heroine, and gradually becomes a brilliant Oriental melody. In the middle of the piece, there is a battle theme, which recalls the theme of Shahriar. The flight of the legendary bird Rukh occurs on the background of the battle scene with the sound of a flute-piccolo. The completion of the game: a transition from the theme of the battle to the theme of the Prince.

The third part, called “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” is based on two themes that characterize the main characters of the story. One of them, the Prince’s theme more lyrical, melodic, the second, that of the Princess, completes it with joyful intonations. Themes develop, weave, acquire new bright colors.

The fourth part, called by the composer “Festival at Bagdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.” includes a combination of almost all the major themes from the previous parts. Here, they intertwine in a sophisticated way, fill with new nuances, and create an image of wild pleasure. The party is replaced by a sea storm, in which the work of Rimsky-Korsakov reaches perfection.

Shéhérazade, dessin, dessin sur sable, portrait d'une femme orientale, atelier d'artiste, table lumineuse
Scheherazade - Katerina Barsukova, sand drawing, Artist Workshop

And after…

On June 4, 1910, two years after the composer’s death, “Scheherazade” shone on the stage of the Paris Opera during Serge Diaghilev’s “Saisons russes”. The show captivated the French public both with its musical richness, the choreography of Michel Fokine and the costumes of Léon Bakst transmitting together the original oriental flavours.

The ballet production received a second life in 1994 thanks to Andris Liepa, Russian star dancer of the Bolshoi Theatre. Not only was the choreography of Michel Fokine completely rebuilt, but also Léon Bakst’s sketches. Since then, “Scheherazade” has been regularly presented on the stages of the world’s biggest theatre stages and opera houses.

The oriental melodies of “Scheherazade” inspired musicians of the XX-XXI century. For example, in 1968, the Deep Purple presented an arrangement of the first part of the suite on an electric organ in one of their albums.

In 1971, the Collegium Musicum included in its recording, a cover of the suite.

In 2005, “Scheherazade” was arranged for wind instruments and presented to the public by the Robert Paterson Wind Ensemble (USA). In 2010, at the Moscow Jazz Festival, a jazz arrangement “Scheherazade XXI” was presented by Igor Butman and Nikolai Levinovsky.

In Sergey Prokofiev’s musical work, there is “Fantasy on the theme of Scheherazade”, inspired by the symphonic suite of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov.

Maurice Ravel has always proudly said that his reference book is the score of “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov, to which he often returns to learn instrumentation. In 1903 he wrote his “Scheherazade” - a vocal cycle of three poems for voice and orchestra.

“Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov remains one of the great musical works prized by the filmmakers too.

I am lucky to make my interpretation of this masterpiece thanks to my art – sand animation. Fascinating romantic music, filled with colors and emotions, led me to use a single color in the sand drawing - terracotta. It seems to me that it perfectly represents this work by reminding me of the red earth sculptures of Ancient Greece.

Here again there will be keys that will open the doors not only for the escape of Scheherazade, but also keys for the silent chambers of the soul that rarely open, and not for everyone...

And remember: there will be silence after the storm, there will be reconciliation after the quarrel, there will be freedom after the escape.

Katerina Barsukova

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