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While we often look to art for profundity and insight, it also provides escapist relief from daily pressures. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic suite, “Scheherazade,” is just that: an exotic, ravishing, timeless, evocative fantasy based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, the sprawling collection of ancient Arabian legends. The framing story finds the Sultan Shahriar, who regards all women as deceitful, vowing to take a virgin as his new wife each day, sleep with her, and then slay her the next morning — until the brilliant Scheherazade outwits him and ultimately wins his love by spinning intriguing stories that she would halt at dawn and only conclude the next night. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is unified by two primary themes heard at the very outset. The first suggests the Sultan, at first brusque but then constantly transformed to reflect his growing enchantment. The other is a gorgeous refrain in the high register of a solo violin, as Scheherazade narrates each of her fanciful tales to conquer the Sultan with her sweet guile. Each of the four movements depicts one of her tales. “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” is built upon repeated motifs and sustains interest through the wonder of Rimsky-Korsakov’s dexterous handling. “The Story of the Kalendar Prince” presents a sinuous pastoral melody buffeted by lyrical temptation and vigorous threats until transfixed and lulled by the Scheherazade theme. “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” features a lilting, playful love song, extended by shimmering winds and gently scalar strings, offset by a jaunty, up-tempo variant spiced with a triangle and tambourine, until the Scheherazade theme wistfully unites them. “The Festival at Bagdad — The Sea — The Ship Goes to Pieces on a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior — Conclusion” finds the seafaring adventurer Sinbad tiring of revelry and heading out to uncharted waters, where he loses his ship in a storm. The exquisite ending belongs to Scheherazade. Having won her victory over the Sultan’s cruel power through astute charm and allure, her captivating theme soars higher and finally alights on a barely audible harmonic, drawing us with her toward ever-new reaches of infinite imagination. Rimsky-Korsakov later regretted the descriptive titles and insisted that his themes were purely material for free musical development, intertwining and unifying the movements, illuminating different traits and expressing different moods, corresponding to different visions, actions, and pictures — “presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of images and designs of oriental character. .�.�. I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each.” He mused that he should have labeled the movements prelude, ballade, adagio, and finale to avoid any suggestion of program music. Yet, specific pointers aside, “Scheherazade” is immensely evocative, due in large part to Rimsky-Korsakov’s extraordinary skills as an orchestrator. He regarded instrumentation as an integral part of his work. In his Principles of Orchestration treatise, he wrote of his dazzling “Capriccio Espagnole”: “The change of timbres, felicitous choice of melodic designs and figuration patterns, exactly suiting each kind of instrument, brief virtuoso cadenzas, the rhythm of the percussion instruments, etc., constitute the very essence of the composition and not its garb.” Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov came to view and disparage other composers from his perspective. Thus, despite his great admiration for Beethoven’s “countless leonine leaps of imagination,” Rimsky-Korsakov felt that “his technique remains much inferior to his titanic conception.” Others came to view Rimsky-Korsakov’s work as a practical textbook of instrumental technique. In “Scheherazade,” with its varied evocations of activity and nature, Rimsky-Korsakov exploited the full scope of his skill with extraordinary balances and novel textures, through frequent solos, and by varying the number of players of each type of instrument. While Rimsky-Korsakov is considered an exemplar of Russian style, his greatest influence transcended the national music he strove to advance — his imaginative, transparent sonorities were a primary component of the French impressionist sound and can be heard throughout Stravinsky’s variegated career, which ranged from his early ballets through his neoclassical period and beyond. A SECRET LOVER While a moderate success in the concert hall, the evocative quality of the music led “Scheherazade” to be reborn in 1912 as a sensational ballet, presented in the first season of Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes, with serpentine choreography by Michel Fokine, bold emerald sets by Leon Bakst, and the lead roles danced by Vaslav Nijinsky and Ida Rubinstein. The first movement of “Scheherazade” became the overture, and the third was excised altogether. The story of the ballet, though, had nothing to do with Rimsky-Korsakov’s distinctive titles, although it did derive from one of the stories with which Scheherazade regaled her master — after Shahriar leaves to go hunting, Zabeide, his favorite concubine, convinces his head eunuch to open his harem to the slaves, including her secret lover. But the king’s departure was only a ruse to catch Zabeide cheating. The ensuing orgy ends with Shahriar’s early return and a massacre of the revelers. As Shahriar wavers over her fate, Zabeide stabs herself and dies, leaving him in despair. Fortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov himself had died two years earlier — it’s hard to imagine what he (who had bridled at the coarseness of sailors) would have thought of this licentious use of his exquisite craftsmanship. GIFTED BUT PRESUMPTUOUS Despite its exotic origins, “Scheherazade” has a distinctively Russian sound. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov was one of “The Five,” a group of young, rebellious composers who sought to develop uniquely Russian music. Their hero was Mikhail Glinka, who had single-handedly founded the Russian school by investing his 1836 opera, “A Life for the Czar,” with Russian spirit, psychology, and style. Their leader was Mily Balakirev, a despotic, highly opinionated but hugely talented natural musician who saw no need for formal training and tried to mold the others to his taste. Tchaikovsky later described the Five as “very gifted but impregnated with the most horrible presumptuousness and a purely amateur conviction of their superiority to all other musicians in the universe.” Yet they continued to blaze the path begun by Glinka by defying Eurocentric fashion and academic constraint to create a truly national music imbued with the jagged rhythms of native folk song, the cadences of the Orthodox Church, and the stories and characters of Russian lore and literature. Despite their enthusiasm and confidence, all but one of the Five had careers apart from their avocation of music. Rimsky-Korsakov trained for six years as a naval officer, and then embarked on three years of worldwide maneuvers, where he was exposed to a wide variety of musical cultures and during his spare time became immersed in Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration. Upon returning from his cruise, he was made Inspector of Naval Bands, where he explored the instruments’ qualities and became familiar with practical aspects of performance. At age 27 he was appointed to the St. Petersburg Conservatory as professor of composition and instrumentation. As he put it, the new teacher became one of the conservatory’s most eager pupils, so as to keep a step ahead of his own students. Indeed, he was so adept that he wrote his own highly respected tract on orchestration even as he was learning that craft himself. Rimsky-Korsakov soon drifted away from the Five. As he later recalled, he traded revolution for progression, traded his disdain of the emerging Wagnerian style for a willingness to learn and absorb, replaced his intolerance with eclecticism and tempered his creativity with technical knowledge. The Five considered all this an act of betrayal, but Rimsky-Korsakov applied his expanded outlook to create “Scheherazade,” a work that would spread insular Russian culture throughout the world. “Scheherazade” tends to be snubbed by those seeking music with a serious message. Yet throughout future generations, the sheer beauty and invention of “Scheherazade” will assure it a cherished place in the affections of all who look to music for relief from the troubles and perplexities of their time.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. He reviews recommended recordings of “Scheherazade” on his Web site.

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