Throughout history, classical composers have written pieces based on all kinds of stories; but only one composer has ever undertaken the daunting task of telling 1001 stories in a single composition. While most composers would never dare to attempt the assimilation of such a wide range of stories into a single piece of music, Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov took the challenge upon himself. In 1888, he composed the colorful and fantastically imaginative symphonic suite, Scheherazade. However, Rimski-Korsakov never actually believed that he would be able to retell the magnificent stories of the Arabian Nights through a single symphonic suite. Instead, he condensed the Nights into four distinct literary themes, and transformed those themes into melodies. By intertwining and embellishing these musical motifs throughout the suite, Rimsky-Korsakov inadvertently succeeded in “retelling” the Nights to an astounding degree of accuracy and detail. Although Scheherazade was never meant to deliver the full narrative of the Arabian Nights, the piece manages to illustrate almost every facet of the book without being restricted by the actual storyline.
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 in the small provincial town of Tikhvin, only 200 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. Young Nikolay’s musical talents were apparent from an early age, writing his very first composition at the age of ten. As Nikolay came of age, he was persuaded by his older brother Voin, a distinguished naval officer, to join the Russian Navy. In 1862, Nikolay reached a pivotal point in his musical career. While composing his first symphony, he was drafted for a three year tour-of-duty in the Navy. Instead of choosing between his musical career and his naval duties, Rimsky-Korsakov received the best of both worlds; he continued to compose while on board the man-o’-war Almaz, and imbued his music with the military marches, folk songs, and oceanic themes that he took from his surroundings. In fact, the “Wave motif” would become one of the most important aspects of his most famous piece, Scheherazade. His naval voyages took him all over the world, from northwestern Russia to London, to Niagara Falls, to Rio de Janeiro. Ultimately, however, he found himself ill-suited for a life of seafaring, and joined a classical conservatory where he learned from the esteemed Mily Balakirev, eventually becoming an erudite musical scholar. By the late 1860s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions were being performed alongside Balakirev’s.
The late 1860s also saw the rise of three other innovative Russian composers: César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Alexander Borodin. Unified by a commitment to a unique brand of nationalistically Russian music, the five composers formed a fellowship, aptly known as “The Five,” or alternatively, “The Mighty Handful.” The Five were dedicated to the musical styles of their heritage, and opposed the stale European styles that had come to dominate most conservatory training programs. Every one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions produced after the late 1860s may be considered to be the result of the Mighty Handful’s collective sanction. Therefore, Scheherazade was not simply the composition of a single person, but the result of a combined effort by a respected group of accomplished Russian composers (Humphreys 2007-2009).
By 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov had become a noteworthy professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and Balakirev’s deputy at Court Kapella where he had grown familiar with the music of the Russian Orthodox Church. He had enjoyed a great amount of success in his career, both in terms of money and fame. Rimsky-Korsakov’s ebullience was further uplifted by the birth of his daughter, Masha, that very year. The summer of 1888 marked the height of his productivity. With his entire family and his newfound scholarship, experience, and wealth, Rimsky-Korsakov moved to the rustic estate of Glindki-Mavriny on Cheryemenyetskoye Lake with the intention of writing a grand-scale orchestral composition based on certain episodes from Arabian Nights, or as he preferred to call it, “Shekherazada” (Rimsky-Korsakoff 1923). After only a single summer on the estate, he had finished all four movements of the piece that would one day become his most celebrated composition.
The frame story of the Arabian Nights is one of the most famous tales in all of Oriental literature. The mere mention of the name “Scheherazade” evokes images of Sinbad’s ship, flying carpets, demons trapped in urns, and ‘Ali Baba’s famous phrase “Open Sesame!” Unsurprisingly, Rimsky-Korsakov hoped to use this to his advantage when he wrote his orchestral suite. On the title page of the musical score of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov describes the frame story in his own words, setting the mood for the entire piece:
The Sultan Schahriar, persuaded of the falseness and faithlessness of women, had sworn to have each one of his wives put to death after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in the stories which she narrated for a thousand an one nights. Impelled by curiosity, the Sultan remitted the punishment of his wife day after day, and finally renounced entirely his bloodthirsty resolution.
Many wonderful things were told Schahriar by the Sultana Scheherazade. In her narratives the Sultana drew on the poets for their verses, on folksongs for their words, and intermingled tales and adventures with one another.
This introduction to the piece is not simply for show. It instills the extraordinary circumstances of the frame story in every musician’s mind and even gives the conductor insights on how to conduct the orchestra. Rather than viewing the piece as an ordinary symphony, the conductor now knows to view the piece more as a fairy tale, with each musical phrase symbolizing a spellcasting demon, or a chest of golden riches, or a narrow escape from certain peril. In fact, the images associated with Arabian Nights are helpful for both the musicians and for the audience. Any instrumentalist can attest to the fact that imagery is invaluable to a musician. For instance, it gives guidance to those who may not know exactly how the music is meant to be played. Imagery also allows for more liberated musical expression. As Marin Alsop says, “The best performances are ones where the soloists understand the larger story and then add their own personal touches and insights into the mix. To have a harpist who can transform the evening with three chords or a violinist capable of weaving surprise, suspense and sensuality into the many appearances of Scheherazade, is truly magical” (Alsop 2007). Similarly, if a musician knows that the melodies are meant to emulate classical Oriental and Middle Eastern themes, he may take certain liberties in tempo and dynamics in order to mimic Persian musical traditions. As stated above, the imagery associated with the Arabian Nights is helpful to the audience as well. If a listener is unfamiliar with Scheherazade, it is unlikely that he/she will automatically be able to associate the music with Middle Eastern motifs, let alone be able to associate it with the Nights. A perfect example of this phenomenon is often observed with Mozart’s Rondo alla Turka, or “Turkish March.” When Mozart wrote the piece, it apparently sounded extremely Turkish in both style and melody. But apparently, the Viennese idea of “what sounds Turkish” is quite different than anyone else’s. Additionally, what “sounded Turkish” in Mozart’s time (200 years ago) is very different from what “sounds Turkish” today. Similarly, an audience may have trouble forming mental images or cultural inferences from the music alone; yet, as soon as an audience member sees “Scheherazade” written on the program, the imagery flows forth like a river.
The piece itself is a stylistic masterpiece. Every aspect of the music – melodies, harmonies, rhythms, embellishments, dynamics, tempos – is reminiscent of the themes of storytelling and adventure. Before composing the piece, Rimsky-Korsakov realized that an attempt to tell the full story of the Arabian Nights in perfect chronological order would be constraining, impractical, unrealistic, and ultimately purposeless. Instead, he chose something much simpler and much more unique, deciding to write Scheherazade as a completely normal symphonic suite. He chose a few main themes and worked with them throughout the entire length of the score: “I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character” (Rimsky-Korsakoff 1923). Just like an ordinary symphony, the piece has a strong prelude, a scherzo-like second movement, a romantic and mellifluous third movement, and a tumultuous finale. Rimsky-Korsakov also added thickly Oriental overtones to the piece as a whole. Considering the fact that the piece is structured so ordinarily and so simply, it is a miracle that the piece resembles the Arabian Nights in the slightest. However, Rimsky-Korsakov ingeniously managed to pull all of his themes together by the end of the piece; and lest we forget that the mere mention of the name “Scheherazade” immediately evokes the corresponding images in our minds. In fact, the name of each movement is a particular reference to the story: The movements are named “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” and the rather confusing “Festival At Baghdad, The Sea, The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman” (London Symphony Orchestra 1990). All of these devices, in conjunction with one another, provide for a thrilling, colorful evocation of the Nights.
Upon finishing the composition of Scheherazade in the late summer of 1888, Rimsky-Korsakov had no idea that his piece would reach such levels of fame and admiration. In his memoir, My Musical Life, he confesses the fact that Scheherazade is only loosely related to the actual story of the Nights: “In vain do people seek in my suite leading motives linked unbrokenly with ever the same poetic ideas and conceptions. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, all these seeming leitmotivs are nothing but purely musical material or the given motives for symphonic development” (Rimsky-Korsakoff 1923). This excerpt seems unduly hyperbolic and almost cynical to one who has witnessed the majesty of the piece itself. How can the composer of such an epic masterpiece be so pessimistic about the literary validity of his music? On the whole, of course, Rimsky-Korsakov was correct in claiming that the music is not flawlessly in sync with the book. However, he was remiss in believing that the leitmotifs of the suite are “purely musical,” used simply for “symphonic development.” Just as Rimsky-Korsakov was unaware of the success his piece would enjoy, it is quite possible that he was also unaware of the degree to which his symphony did, in fact, sync with the Arabian Nights – both the frame story, and the magnificent tales that Scheherazade recounts to the Sultan Shahrayar.
Although Rimsky-Korsakov may have underestimated the poetic accuracy of his suite, he was correct in his disapproval of the titles of the four movements. Originally, Rimsky-Korsakov had intended to name the movements “Prelude,” “Ballade,” “Adagio,” and “Finale.” However, the other members of The Five – along with Anatoly Lyadov, his old mentor – urged him to do away with the generic titles and replace them with actual references to the Nights. Rimsky-Korsakov was loath to oblige, but he eventually renamed the movements; even so, the new titles that he chose were purposefully vague. “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” does not refer to any specific tale of the Nights, but refers to the vessel that Sinbad drives on all seven of his adventures. No particular one of Sinbad’s voyages is specified. The second movement, “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince” fails to mention which of the three different Kalendar’s tales is being referenced. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” is perhaps the vaguest of the four titles, as it is not made clear which of the countless princes and princesses are meant. Only in the fourth movement is a specific reference made to the Third Kalendar’s Tale, in which Prince Ajib, son of Khazib, survives a gruesome shipwreck (Mason 1918). Although Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently published a newer edition of Scheherazade in which these titles were removed, the Arabian Nights references seemed to stick. Even to this day, the four movements are usually listed with their full descriptive headings. The fact that he even agreed to change the names in the first place is a testament to his loyalty for his fellow Russian musicians of the “Mighty Handful.”
Rimsky-Korsakov realized that the Arabian Nights-related movement titles, though more poetic than the original titles, were completely meaningless. In his memoir, he writes at length about the importance of the musical themes, rather than the individual movements. Since the suite is not a story in itself, the names of the movements are insignificant. He offers the following example: “The unison phrase, as though depicting Scheherazade’s stern spouse at the beginning of the suite, appears as a datum, in the Kalendar’s Narrative, where there cannot, however, be any mention of Sultan Shahriar” (Rimsky-Korsakoff 1923). Additionally, the fanfare motif of the muted trombone and trumpet in the Kalendar’s Tale appears once again in the fourth movement, even though the Kalendar would not have attended the Festival at Baghdad. This gives rise to the question: Why did he even entertain the idea of adding such poetic titles to his movements when the movements had so little connection to their respective names? Rimsky-Korsakov answered: “In composing Shekherazada I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had travelled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each” (Rimsky-Korsakoff 1923). In other words, he wanted the listener to enjoy the piece for its musical value, not its metaphoric value. He wanted people to enjoy it as an oriental suite, full of magic and mystery, and not simply four pieces about the Arabian Nights epic. Why then, did he name the piece Scheherazade at all? Rimsky-Korsakov believed that the Arabian Nights could connote images of “fairy-tale wonders” more reliably than any other story of its kind, making it a perfect candidate for a majestic suite such as his. However, there is one, more meaningful reason that the piece retains the name of Scheherazade: every section of the piece seems to exhibit hints that it is told by a single person. Every movement has similarities that remain static throughout the entire piece, somehow suggesting that Scheherazade has been narrating the entire thing, just as she entertains Shahrayar in the Nights.
There are four primary musical motifs that Rimsky-Korsakov uses throughout the entire suite: the Sultan’s Theme, Scheherazade’s Theme, the Kalendar Prince’s Theme, and the Princess’s Theme. Of course, these names are arbitrary, but there is a certain degree of validity to them all. The first theme to be introduced is that of Sultan Shahrayar.
The Sultan’s Theme embodies the character of Shahrayar in every way. First, simply by virtue of it’s prodigious volume. The above excerpt is denoted as “ff ” (fortissimo), connoting the Sultan’s stern and vicious nature. It also evokes an ambiance of danger and fear, thereby creating musical tension – tension that is almost always resolved by the soothing melody of Scheherazade’s Theme, which we will soon cover in great detail. This theme also manages to create tension in other ways than it’s sheer volume. For instance, the long trill in the third measure lasts for almost an entire four beats. Also, notice that the melody seems to follow the general outline of a downward-moving, four note line – the first notes of each measure are E, D, C, A# (Taruskin 1996). These four notes constitute a whole-tone scale between two tritones, E and A#. In music theory, the tritone is the most unsettling, tension-building interval of them all. Rimsky-Korsakov cleverly uses this whole-tone moving line to steadily build more and more tension as the theme progresses from start to finish. The theme is the very first thing to be played in the entire suite. It is blared enharmonically by every instrument in the brass section, creating an astounding effect. Not only does it begin the piece with a bang, but it also sets up at least half of the frame story. After only four measures of the piece, we have already met the vengeful Shahrayar, and we know that he has done something very evil. To those audience members already familiar with the Nights, we have learned within four measures that the homicidal Sultan has “sworn to marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning, in order to save himself from the wickedness and cunning of women” (Haddawy, 14). The theme is played by brass instruments, further imbuing the melody with a sense of burly domination and unyielding cruelty. However, the motif becomes remarkably softened and more sweetly harmonized in the end of the first movement (played by solo flute, solo oboe, and solo clarinet), and briefly once again in the end of the fourth movement (played by the violin section). This, of course, connotes that the Sultan’s heart has been softened by Scheherazade’s endless tales.
As mentioned above, the Sultan’s Theme is almost always tempered by Scheherazade’s Theme. Although this second theme is played at least once by almost every solo instrument in the symphony orchestra, it is played predominantly by the solo violin.
The musical effect of Scheherazade’s Theme is perhaps best described by conductor Marin Alsop: “Scheherazade [speaks] in the voice of the solo violin, weaving effortlessly up and down the instrument, like the mesmerizing sounds of a snake charmer. The harp offers three chords, sending us from consciousness to an altered state of being. Hypnosis in three easy steps” (Alsop 2007). The first word that comes to mind upon seeing the score of Scheherazade’s melody is “winding.” It is immediately visible from a single glance at the notes, that it rambles – precisely like the greatest raconteur in all of literature. When Alsop mentions that the harp “offers three chords,” he is making reference to one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most favored devices. Whenever the solo violin has this melody, it is usually joined by the harp. The harp strikes a chord, which resonates for the entire measure of the theme, upon which the theme is repeated, but with a different chord from the harp. This happens three times, before the violin finally resolves it’s melody on the central tonic note (E). Since the melody revolves around its tonic so religiously, the theme never lapses into monotony, but presses impatiently forward. Of course, this is directly related to Scheherazade’s style of storytelling. While, she continues to spin her tales again and again for the king, and even though her stories may grow increasingly more enthralling and electrifying, she always remains grounded in her present situation (i.e. the frame story) and always keeps her objectives clearly visible before her. Also notice the gratuitous slurring that occurs across the subphrases of the melody. These assure that the violin contentedly meanders along the notes without even a single gap of silence. With the rhetorical repetitiveness of Scheherazade’s winding theme and the magnificently sweet chords of the harp, the combined effect is utterly gorgeous. While at times, the Sultan’s Theme transforms from brash and cruel into soft and sweet, Scheherazade’s Theme consistently remains soft and sweet all throughout the piece. The only possible variation is when Scheherazade’s tales become more adventurous and exciting. In these instances, the theme grows faster, lighter, and more curious. The time signature often changes from a steady 4/4 to a more swaying 6/4; since the winding melody is so elastic, essential notes can be lengthened and inessential notes can be shortened in order to befit the ambulatory swing of triple meter; additionally, the melody is no longer accompanied by the harp, but by an oscillating cello line, called the “Wave motive” (Mason 1918). This lends an aura of exhilaration to the motif, and also gives it the “rocking” likeness of being on a ship. Recall that Rimsky-Korsakov spent a good portion of his early life sailing with the Russian Naval Forces. Indeed, seafaring themes found their way into a great deal of his compositions, yet for Scheherazade, these themes are especially apt. Some of the most famous stories in all of the Arabian Nights are the tales of Sindbad, a sailor from Baghdad of noble birth. Sindbad leaves on his first naval voyage to regain the enormous fortune that his father had left him but that he had spent thriftlessly. The next six voyages, however, are motivated only by a lust for adventure. In each of Sindbad’s seven voyages, he “sails from place to place and from city to city, selling and buying, seeing the sights of the different countries and enjoying [his] voyage and [his] good luck and profit.” In every episode, he continues along this way until a misfortune befalls him and his crew, at which time the adventure begins (Haddawy, 47). Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite deals with the voyages of Sindbad; perhaps the composer was fascinated by Sindbad’s life on the high seas. In other words, it is no mystery why Rimsky-Korsakov was such a strong proponent of the cello’s Wave motive, which occurs in every one of the four movements. Combined with Scheherazade’s exquisite theme, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Wave motive in the violoncello continuo produces “one of the most memorable evocations of the sea in all music” (Mason 1918).
The third main theme of Scheherazade is introduced in the second movement, “The Kalendar Prince.” For this reason alone, the theme is referred to as the Kalendar’s Theme, for the motif bears no immediately apparent relationship with any of the three Kalendar’s stories (and it is not even clear which one is being referred to). In fact, this theme may as well belong to any one of Scheherazade’s 1001 stories. The theme serves mostly as a charming, scherzo-like interlude that bridges the gap between the first and third movements, which are both quite solemn. Yet, the Kalendar’s Theme is noted for its Oriental qualities, which are more pronounced than in any of the other three themes. For instance, it is filled with ornamental cadenzas, which are very common in most Eastern musical traditions. The Kalendar’s Theme is repeated in the fourth movement as a festival theme, with much more vigor and urgency. Of course, the three Kalendars did not partake in any festivals at Baghdad, nor did they play any role in the voyages of Sindbad; this confirms that many of the titles of themes and movements in Scheherazade are completely meaningless.
The fourth and final theme of the piece is the Princess’s Theme, used only in the third movement. The melody is lyrical and graceful, thickened with strong motifs of love. Once again, this theme does not represent any particular one of the 1001 stories, but illustrates the general themes of love and desire in the Nights. Like the Kalendar’s Theme, this melody is densely ornamented in a distinctly Oriental style. In the middle of the third movement, the theme becomes slightly more masculine: the melody becomes more upbeat and a snare drum is added, heralding the Princess’s counterpart, the Prince. The Prince’s “sub-theme” is heard only once more, in the fourth movement.
As mentioned above, Rimsky-Korsakov designed the movements of the piece mainly for the well-being of the piece’s structure. Only the themes themselves were related to certain aspects of the Arabian Nights. And despite the relevance of the themes to the story, Rimsky-Korsakov admitted that he used the themes only as musical devices in his generally Oriental-styled symphony:
The [motifs] thread and spread over all the movements of the suite, alternating and intertwining each with the other. Appearing as they do each time under different illumination, depicting each time different traits and expressing different moods, the self-same given motifs and themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures.
Although Rimsky-Korsakov was correct that the movements of the suite did not relate to the Nights whatsoever, he was far too pessimistic in believing that it was impossible to get an accurate depiction of the story from the piece as a whole. Rimsky-Korsakov likely did not even realize the great extent to which the piece makes logical sense from a narrative standpoint.
The first movement opens with an intimidating statement of the Sultan’s Theme. Immediately, we are presented with conflict – the conflict that King Shahrayar has decided to spend every night with a new woman, only to kill her the following morning. Even if the listener is not intimately familiar with the frame story of the Nights, the juxtaposition of the Sultan’s Theme with Scheherazade’s delicate, womanly theme may give clues as to the nature of the conflict. After the latter theme quells the mood of the former – and just as Scheherazade quells the King’s temper with her stories – the melody is repeated, but this time in a major mode, and accompanied by the swaying Wave motive of the cello. This marks the beginning of Scheherazade’s very first tale. The violin then modulates in between major and minor modes, denoting the twists and turns in her story that keep the Sultan ever interested. Rimsky-Korsakov also made sure to insert slight reminders of the Sultan’s Theme throughout Scheherazade’s story, primarily as an orchestral device, but also to remind the listener that the Sultan is listening quite intently as well. Scheherazade’s Theme grows louder, fuller, and more thickly harmonized throughout the movement, finally coming to its apex and floating down to its finish. The movement does not end with Scheherazade, but rather with a sweet, tranquil version of the Sultan’s theme, marking the first night of the King’s mercy and Scheherazade’s miraculous survival. Did the movement have anything to do with the voyages of Sindbad, as its name suggests? Not unless Scheherazade told that tale as her first story, which she did not, according to the book. Apparently, the only valid explanation of the title (“The Sea and Sindbad’s Ship”) is the cellos’ illustration of the sea motif.
Now that the audience has become sufficiently familiar with Scheherazade’s brilliant plan to survive the Sultan’s wrath, Rimsky-Korsakov uses his second movement as a quintessential, all-purpose story, simply to show that Scheherazade’s tales were endless. The movement, named after one of the three Kalendar Princes’ stories, is highly Oriental and extremely repetitive, making it nothing more than a plainly generic Scheherazadean bedtime story. This does not mean that the movement is less important than any of the others. It is meant to exemplify the adventure and excitement of hundreds upon hundreds of stories collectively. The movement ends in a single explosion of brilliance, bringing a rewarding conclusion to an adventurous movement.
To the contrary, the third movement is meant to exemplify the more passionate and romantic moments of Scheherazade’s stories. We hear mainly the flowing Princess’s Theme, broken only briefly by a slightly masculine sub-motif (with snare drum, hinting at the arrival of the Prince) and a short recapitulation of Scheherazade’s Theme – just another reminder that she is the spinner of these great yarns. The movement comes to a breathtaking climax in the second half of the movement, and ends with the lighthearted march of the so-called “Young Prince.”
In the fourth movement, we plunge unexpectedly into a roller-coaster grand finale, starting with a terse reminder of the Sultan who still refuses to be satisfied. Scheherazade’s Theme calms him, but not for long – the Sultan breaks into another fit of rage. Scheherazade replies again, this time more passionately, as if promising one final story. Suddenly, we are transported to the “Festivities at Baghdad” where we hear repetitions of many themes that are already familiar to us: the Kalendar’s Theme, the Young Prince’s motif, and a hurried version of Scheherazade’s Theme, as she tries desperately to satisfy him with her storytelling. The story becomes more and more tumultuous, with short interjections from the Sultan, as if he were saying “By God, I must postpone her execution until she finishes this tale!” (Haddawy, 1990). The music shifts quickly from “The Festival at Baghdad” to Sindbad’s shipwreck, although it might as well be any other story as well (as Rimsky-Korsakov correctly asserts). When the story comes to a scintillating culmination, we are pulled back to the frame story, where a deeply conflicted Sultan finally breaks his homicidal pledge with a final cry of exasperation. The clamor dies down, and Scheherazade’s Theme slowly intertwines with a tamed, subdued version of the Sultan’s Theme until all ends in peace.
Although it was not Rimsky-Korsakov’s intention, he was able to encapsulate most of the main characters and themes of the Arabian Nights in the four movements of his piece, producing a surprisingly accurate retelling of the story. By organizing the musical themes to best suit the structure of the piece, Rimsky-Korsakov had inadvertently retold the entire story, note for note. For instance, ending the suite by merging the piece’s two main melodies is a very satisfying way to end a symphony; and yet, the intertwining of Scheherazade’s Theme with the Sultan’s perfectly illustrates their eventual marriage to one another and the peace that ensues after the Sultan renounces his bloodthirsty pledge.
If Rimsky-Korsakov’s only purposeful allusions to the Nights were his four musical themes, might the piece have been improved by adding even more themes? Could the suite have been composed even more vividly if characters like Shahzaman, Sindbad, the demons, ‘Ali Baba, and ‘Ala al-Din were given themes as well? It probably would have made the piece longer, but not necessarily better. Rimsky-Korsakov used the bare minimum of themes from the book – Scheherazade, the Sultan, a motif of adventure and danger, and a motif of passion and desire. A four movement piece may not necessarily be enough room for the development of six/seven different themes, especially considering the extent to which Rimsky-Korsakov likes to tinker with and embellish each one. Also, adding more themes in an attempt to make the music more specific to the book, would have been counterproductive. By doing so, Rimsky-Korsakov would have constrained himself even more to the storyline, which would have made the composition feel forced and unnatural.
But then again, the objective of Scheherazade was not to retell the Arabian Nights, but to “connote in everybody’s mind [images of] the East and fairy-tale wonders” (Rimsky-Korsakoff, 1923). Rimsky-Korsakov’s Oriental motifs alone were enough to connote images of the East. His real accomplishment was transforming the book of 1001 Nights into only four movements. In its entirety, Scheherazade is a richly harmonic, exotically melodic, and brilliantly orchestrated piece that is well-deserved as Rimsky-Korsakov’s most esteemed composition.
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