Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade

We begin where we left off in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, with what was the closing statement:

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) circa 1886
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) circa 1886

“It’s a fact: the very history of twentieth century Russian, Russian expatriate, and Soviet composers starts with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), whose own roots trace back through The Five to Glinka and the awakening of Russian musical nationalism in the 1830s, all of which was an outgrowth of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in 1812!”

During his lifetime, Rimsky-Korsakov was best known for his thirteen operas.  However, he is best known today for three spectacularly popular orchestral works, all of which were composed within a span of 18 months, between the winter of 1887 and August 1888: the Capriccio espagnole, The Russian Easter Overture, and Scheherazade.

Scheherazade – the Story

The literary story behind Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade comes from a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales initially compiled during the 9th century, a compilation entitled One Thousand and One Nights.  Among the best-known of the folk tales in this compilation are “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.”

Many different versions of One Thousand and One Nights have come down to us, from different times and places. What they all have in common is a literary device built around a Persian princess named Scheherazade, a devise that “frames” each of the stories as it is told in turn.  

Here’s that device.

Scheherazade and the Sultan, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880
Scheherazade and the Sultan, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

[3. “Scheherazade and the Sultan, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880”]

The Persian Sultan Shahryar has developed some serious anger-management issues as a result of his frankly disastrous love life.  Since being betrayed by his first wife, he’s been on a rampage: every night he marries a new virgin, and every day he has that previous night’s wife (presumably now no longer a virgin) beheaded.  In just this way he has “divorced” some 3000 young ladies when the daughter of his “Grand Vizier” (the prime minister) – a virgin named Scheherazade – decides to put an end to the slaughter and volunteers to marry the sultan.  A learned young lady and clearly a heck-of-a storyteller, she enthralls the sultan with a story that, because of the coming dawn, she cannot finish (a Persian cliff-hanger, if you will).  He spares her life so that she might finish the story the next night, which she does, only to begin another story that remains unfinished at dawn.  You get the picture.  This goes on for 1000 nights, at which point Scheherazade finally runs out of stories.  On the 1001st night, Sultan Shahryar – now a wiser and less angry man – realizes he loves Scheherazade, spares her life, and officially makes her his queen.…

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