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Views And Reviews: Scheherazade

...Rimsky remains the Master Magician of orchestration, surpassing even Wagner and Berlioz (whose Treatise on Orchestration taught him the art). His best work is utterly unrivalled in the quality of its scoring – entrancing sounds conjured by the very simplest of means. The music of Scheherazade is like a magic carpet: it can transport you to another world...

Paul Serotsky brings an enticing introduction to a magical piece of music,

For more of Paul’s irresistible words on great pieces of music please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) – Scheherazade

At first, Rimsky-Korsakov was strictly an amateur composer, with little formal training. Nevertheless, in 1871 his reputation for "ultra modern"(?) music brought an offer of the Professorship in Practical composition at St. Petersburg Conservatoire. He claimed that, at the time, he "could not harmonise a chorale, had never done any exercises in counterpoint, had no idea of strict fugue, and could not even name the chords and intervals." More significantly, he knew little of instrumental techniques and capabilities. Still, he accepted, bluffing his way through, teaching himself one step ahead of his students, eventually becoming acknowledged as the finest composition teacher Russia had ever produced.

Composer of symphonies, choral music, songs, piano works, editions of Mussorgsky, Borodin and folk-songs, his main claim to fame lay in his 15 operas and numerous orchestral pieces, where his vivid imagination, often fuelled by the exotic experiences of his naval career, could roam free. Scheherazade's specific inspiration was The Tales of the Arabian Nights. The scenario, inscribed on the score, concerns the mighty and misogynous Sultan Sharyar who enjoyed his nuptial pleasures without the risk of acquiring a life-long nag by the politically-incorrect expedient of having each wife executed the morning after. However, Scheherazade enchanted him with wondrous tales, each of which she craftily left unfinished at the night's end (rather like the old Saturday matinee "cliffhangers"). Left gagging for more, Sharyar repeatedly had to stay the execution, finally admitting defeat.

Rimsky remains the Master Magician of orchestration, surpassing even Wagner and Berlioz (whose Treatise on Orchestration taught him the art). His best work is utterly unrivalled in the quality of its scoring – entrancing sounds conjured by the very simplest of means. The music of Scheherazade is like a magic carpet: it can transport you to another world. However, half the fun of watching a conjuror is trying to guess the trick, so let's dig under just a little. He originally called the movements Prelude, Ballade, Adagio, and Finale, but felt that it didn't qualify as a "symphony" because of its programmatic nature (more detailed than Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, though he still intended "these hints to direct but slightly the hearer's fancy") and lack of strict formality (all movements being merely variational).

Considering some of the "symphonies" written since, this was commendable modesty, particularly as symphonic processes, albeit unusual ones, are well in evidence. Far from just scoring "for the moment", he orchestrates strategically, making Scheherazade exceptional even for him. In particular, percussion (he often warned students against profligacy with percussion) are introduced gradually: (1) Tympani only, adding in (2) cymbals and triangle, (3) snare drum and tambourine, (4) bass drum and tamtam. There is also a ground-plan governing the varied use of instrumental "attack".

The Sea and Sinbad's Ship (Largo e Maestoso – Allegro non troppo). Two memorable mottos represent the protagonists: "Sharyar", majestic and fearsome on bass strings and heavy brass, and "Scheherazade", sinuously seductive on solo violin over harp arpeggios. The movement alternates three climactic passages predominantly scored for strings and brass, casting "Sharyar" in the role of Sinbad, with three calm twilit episodes featuring both mottos. The scoring of the two interstitial episodes, otherwise practically identical, is breathtaking in its simple ingenuity: in the second episode the solo 'cello swaps places with the horn, likewise clarinet with flute, while oboe and solo violin stay put.

The Tale of the Kalendar Prince (Lento – Andante). The Kalendars were wandering beggars, for some superstitious reason feted as royalty. The movement is a ternary form (ABA) regarding deployment of themes, but otherwise a kaleidoscope of increasingly colourful variations, making atmospheric use of string tremolandos and "thrummings", and characteristically "pricking" textures with sharper sounds. "Scheherazade" weaves her spell to introduce the A theme – half dancing, half declamatory – on the only woodwind not yet heard solo: the bassoon (resolving a sort of "dissonance"). The B theme is based on "Sharyar", first heard plucked deep in the basses, then in fierce growls and brassy fanfares. A bold march gradually emerges, bracketed by two cadenzas on the declamatory part of A. The first is for clarinet, the second (on bassoon) initiates the final section, containing the most exquisite scoring of the entire work. "Sharyar" reappears, low down, generating a huge crescendo to a knockout close.

The Young Prince and Princess (Andantino quasi Allegretto). Invent a story of young love, if you wish – Rimsky provided scant clues: the sumptuous main theme (flowing strings) he identified with the Prince, a brief counter-subject (rippling clarinet) with the Princess, and at the central allegretto he suggested, "They carry the Princess on a palanquin". Again, this is a "ternary/variations" form. The first section rings the changes on string textures tinted by added wind, with contrasting solo woodwind timbres. The allegretto, one of those wonderful oriental dances, is just an upbeat variation of the same material, where the snare-drum part is played on more than the snare-drum. A resounding trumpet-led rubato reinstates tempo primo for a rhapsodic closing section where solo instruments predominate, and "Scheherazade" embroiders the tale. The codetta is particularly captivating, woodwind swirl over string pizzicati and scintillating percussion: what images that conjures!

Festival at Baghdad – The Sea – Shipwreck on a Rock surmounted by a Bronze Warrior – Conclusion (Allegro molto). The orchestration reaches a peak of virtuosity, inevitably with less subtlety as the big guns are drawn to blast huge splashes of poster-colour. Paralleling the work's beginning, the introduction finds "Sharyar" now gruffly impatient (grabbing first whack on the bass drum), and "Scheherazade" correspondingly more animated.

The Festival is, loosely, a "rondo/variations": AB[AC]ABA, where C, developing the Kalendar fanfare, hijacks the second A's climax. The first and third occurrences of A, a skittering dance, whip up a blaze of crackling trumpets and booming tuttis – these last based on the Kalendar Prince's bassoon tune. B is the "palanquin" allegretto, liquidly re-scored.

The final A builds manically, trumpets triple-tonguing like mad, only for the scene to cut cinematographically to Sinbad's storm-tossed ship, which shudders (theme stuttering in basses) and breaks (tamtam!). In the stunned calm one recognises, through the thematic identity, that this symbolises Sharyar's rising passion for his enchantress and cataclysmic acquiescence to the superiority of woman (or at least this particular woman). "Sharyar" and "Scheherazade" finally make sweet music together.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of my first loves in music. My original LP of Scheherazade was played until it disintegrated, but thirty-five years on the music, now more robustly preserved on CD, still unfailingly evokes the same fantastic images: a wonderful palliative against the stresses of modern life.

© Paul Serotsky


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