The symphonic suite “Scheherazade” written by N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov in 1883 is one of the masterpieces of Russian classical music on Oriental themes.
The suite is based on the “Arabian Nights”. The composer originally gave subtitles to individual parts of the suite, but later deleted them and left ony the title and the general programme.
Sultan Shakhriar, convinced of the infidelity of the fair sex, gives a pledge to execute each of his wives after the first night spent with her. But Sultana Scheherazade saves her life by relating stories so fascinating for a thousand and one nights, that the sultan keeps putting off her execution and finally abandons his intention altogether. Many a marvel does he learn of from Scheherazade who weaves poetry and lyrics into her fascinating tales, which seem to have no end.
The slow prelude of the suite describes the principal characters: the stern Sultan Shakhriar and the very feminine and poetic Scheherazade, whose theme is rendered by a solo violin accompanied by a harp. These two themes make up the leading motives heard through the entire length of the suite.
The prelude is followed by allegro in E major where both themes of the prelude develop info the theme of the sea. This form of transformation and variation of musical images has been broadly used by Rimsky-Korsakov in the suite. He himself wrote in this connection: “It is vain to search in my suite for leitmotifs always associated with the same poetic images and concepts. On the contrary, in most cases what seems to be a leitmotif is nothing more than musical material for symphonic elaboration. These are scattered all through the suite, alternating and intertwining, one with another, appearing now and then in a different light, each time depicting various traits and expressing different feelings peculiar to various images, actions and scenes”.
The second movement. Lento in B minor, is a most original piece for its striking Oriental colours and epic tone. A new image, Prince Kalender enters the scene and Scheherazade passes the narration to him as it were.
The middle part, which is a kind of fantastic Oriental scherzomarch, is an elaboration of a war-like trumpet signal, and depicts a fierce battle.
The third movement, Andantino in G major, is the most lyrical part of the suite, which originally bore the subtitle “Prince and Princess”. It is basically made up of two themes, one broad and melodious, full of Oriental languor, the other — written as a dance, graceful and rhythmically intricate.
The fourth movement is a monumental Finale remarkable for its strikingly fanciful orchestration, rich Oriental colour and fiery temperament. “The scene of a gala fete in Baghdad” — is how the composer himself described it.
The principal musical image of the Finale is a thrilling, impetuous dance theme akin to the Georgian dance “Lekuri”.
The concluding episode of the Finale has an illustrative character: “a ship is dashed to pieces on rocks”, as was explained by the composer. The music played by the full orchestra rises to a staggering pitch, culminating in a fortissimo which swiftly drops to a soft melody of the violins, depicting the image of a calm sea.
The Sultan’s wrath has abated, and his theme is no longer menacing, but turns into a soft and peaceful melody. The suite concludes with the leitmotif of Scheherazade.