One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

The series of tales known as 1001 Arabian Nights dates back to the Ninth Century and is thought to be derived from traditional Arabic, Persian and Indian stories taking place between 226 and 651 C.E.. The first European version was a French translation by Antoine Galland in 1704. Several of the most famous tales such as Ali Baba and Sinbad were first included in Galland’s compilation.

The framing device for the stories is introduced in the first tale. The Sultan Schahriar who rules an unnamed island between India and China discovers that his wife is plotting with a lover to kill him. This convinces him that all women are likewise unfaithful – Così fan tutte! He gives an order to get a new wife every night and to have her executed the following morning. The Sultana Scheherazade devised a plan to tell him stories for hours each night but stopping at dawn with a cliffhanger so the Sultan would delay her execution to hear the end of the story. In the 1001th story the Sultan is convinced that Scheherazade is indeed faithful and revokes his execution order.

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Born March 18, 1944, Tikhvin

Died June 21 1908, Lyubensk (near St. Petersburg)

Scheherazade, Op. 35 Symphonic Suite

Composed summer 1888

First Performance: November 3, 1888, Club of Nobility, St. Petersburg with the composer conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling English Horn), 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion (Triangle, Tambourine, Tamburo/Tamburo piccolo, Cymbals, Bass Drum/Tam Tam), harp and strings

Rimsky-Korsakov attended the Royal Naval Academy in St. Petersburg from 1856 to 1862, and he served as a Russian naval officer until 1873. So when we hear impressions of the sea in “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” he is speaking with authority.

Rimsky-Korsakov was a master or orchestral color. His treatise on orchestration is still widely in use today. He scored many works of his fellow composers. When Alexander Borodin died, he revised and completed his opera Prince Igor. “Orientalism” was in the air at that time but perhaps this experience compelled him to explore oriental themes in his own work.

The score of Scheherazade is prefaced by the following synopsis:

The Sultan Schahriar, convinced by the falseness and faithlessness of women, vowed to put to death each one of his wives after their bridal night. The Sultana Scheherazade however saved her life by interesting the sultan in the stories she told him during one thousand and one nights. In his curiosity for the sequels to her stories, , the Sultan postponed Scheherazade ‘s execution from day to day, until he finally abandoned his sanguinary resolution altogether. In her stories, Scheherazade frequently included the verses and songs of the poets, and interlaced her narratives of marvels and adventures so as to link them together.

In his autobiography My Musical Life Rimsky-Korsakov relates “The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights: the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalandar, the Prince and the Princess, the Baghdad festival, and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it. The unifying thread consisted of the brief introduction to Movements I, II, and IV and the intermezzo in Movement III, written for violin solo, and delineating Scheherazade herself as telling her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan. The conclusion of Movement IV serves the same artistic purpose.”

Liadov tried to persuade Rimsky-Korsakov to remove the descriptive subtitles for the movements, but he let them remain. They are:

I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (Largo e maestoso — Allegro non troppo)

II. The Kalendar Prince (Lento –Andantino- Allegro molto – Con moto)

III. The Young Prince and The Young Princess (Andantino quasi allegretto — Pochissimo più mosso — Come prima — Pochissimo più animato)

IV. Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman. (Allegro molto — Vivo — Allegro non troppo maestoso)

The materials

The Largo e maestoso opening of The Sea and Sinbad’s ship powerfully introduces the Sultan.

Example 1. The Sultan’s theme

Rimsky-Korsakov also describes the second theme. “A characteristic theme, the theme of Scheherazade herself, appears in all four movements. This theme is a florid melody in triplets, and it generally ends in a free cadenza. It is played, for the most part, by the solo violin.”

Example 2. The Sultana Scheherazade

We should not go too far with the meaning of these themes nor the subtitles for the movements. Rimsky-Korsakov noted “In vain do people seek in my suite leading motives linked always with the same poetic ideas and conceptions. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, all these seeming leitmotifs are nothing but purely musical material, or the given motives for symphonic development. These given motives 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 moods, the self-same motives and themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures. In this manner, developing quite freely the musical data taken as a basis of the composition, 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.”

I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
The Allegro non troppo features variations on the themes of the sultan and Scheherezade. Throughout, an undulating string figure suggests the motion of the sea, upon which Sinbad’s ship travels.

II The Story of the Kalendar Prince

There are several stories concerning wandering dervishes called Kalendars in the tales. In this movement Scheherazade’s theme returns.
A solo bassoon plays a melody which is then picked up by a solo oboe and later by the violins and woodwinds. A reprise of the oboe solo leads to a contrasting Allegro molto. Before the movement’s climax there is a beautifully orchestrated section featuring muted strings, harp and various solo instruments.

III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess

The violins offer the initial statement of the slow movement’s graceful principal melody (Andantino quasi allegretto). The various presentations of the melody are punctuated by rapid ascending and descending woodwind scales. After a jaunty, delicately scored interlude (Pocchissimo più mosso), the character of Scheherazade (solo violin) returns. A reprise of music from the Andantino leads to a dolce resolution.

IV. The Festival of Baghdad-The Sea-The Ship Goes to Pieces Against a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior-Fest in Baghdad

Furious statements of the opening “Sultan” motif, alternating with Scheherazade’s music (Allegro molto: Lento: Allegro molto e frenetico: Lento), serve as a prelude to the central portion of the finale. A solo flute introduces the sprightly principal melody (Vivo). A whirlwind of activity ensues, growing ever more ominous. At the climax, there is a massive reprise of the “Sinbad” music (Allegro non troppo e maestoso). Finally, the mood calms, and the solo violin brings Scheherazade’s narrative to its magical conclusion.


Library of Congress Name Authority