Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) came from an affluent, cultured family. An uncle was an admiral in the Russian navy and a much older half-brother was a marine officer. Although his musical talent was apparent at an early age, the navy was his very earnest goal. Starting at age twelve, he successfully trained as a naval cadet and midshipman while idly pursuing his musical interests as a sideline. A turning point came in 1861 while on active duty when he met Mili Balakirev, a brilliant, strong-willed musician with an eye for great talent. He took Rimsky under his wing and gradually influenced him to turn to music as a career. Rimsky subsequently became one of a group Balakirev formed with three other young disciples, all of exceptional talent: Modeste Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and César Cui. Becoming famous under the sobriquet of “The Mighty Handful,” or “The Russian Five,” their efforts were largely devoted to raising the awareness and pride of the Russian people in their country’s musical traditions. Rimsky was the best focused and most productive of that remarkable group. Sidelining his naval career in 1865, he diligently honed his musical skills and joined the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His reputation rapidly grew as a composer, teacher, editor, musical theoretician and writer. He also became widely known as an orchestrator, in a class with Wagner, Berlioz and Richard Strauss.
Nowhere is Rimsky-Korsakov’s amazing talent for orchestration more apparent than in his symphonic suite Scheherazade, composed in 1888. It is based on tales from A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of stories dating from as early as the 9th century and originating from the cultures of India, Persia and the Arab world. Translations of the tales first appeared in the West early in the 18th century, and their engaging plots and characters, along with so many diverse exotic flavors, have exerted powerful charms ever since. Many western composers have long been drawn to the rhythms, harmonies, sinuous melodies, and instruments from that entire region. And in the popular imagination, few captured it all as well as Rimsky-Korsakov.
Central to A Thousand and One Nights was the paranoid, all-powerful Sultan Schariar who had become convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women. He vowed thenceforth to marry only young virgins and to behead each after the first night. That policy was having a drastic effect on the supply of young virgins in his lands until he wed Scheherazade. This bright young lady saved her life by telling a succession of tales to the Sultan night by night, each of which so tickled his curiosity that he would postpone her execution for just one more day. This continued for a thousand and one nights, by which time the Sultan finally relented and abandoned his bloody plan.
Rimsky-Korsakov initially provided an outline for the four movements of Scheherazade: 1) The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship. 2) The Story of the Kalander Prince. 3) The Young Prince and the Young Princess. 4) The Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks Up on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior. Conclusion. Although the stories are essentially unrelated, the four episodes are connected by thematic material such as the thunderous motif of the Sultan, and the delicate, cadenza-like rambling theme for violin solo delineating our heroine. The tone painting includes the sea in its various moods, the hustle and bustle of an ancient city, the beauty and endearments of the young lovers, battles and victories, a super-exciting climax, and a peaceful conclusion. The result is a most vibrant work, one of the crown jewels of the orchestral repertoire.