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ClassicsOnline Home » RIMSKY-KORSAKOV, N.A.: Scheherazade / Tale of Tsar Saltan Suite (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
Described by the composer as a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of oriental character, Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Sheherazade has delighted listeners for generations. The rapturous solo violin plays the part of the slave who narrates the wonderful tales of the Arabian Nights, including the adventures of Sinbad, Prince Kalender and the Festival of Baghdad. The suite, or ‘musical pictures’, from The Tale of Tsar Saltan depicts episodes from this magical opera, from which the mischievous Flight of the Bumblebee is also drawn. The Seattle Symphony is one of the world’s most recorded orchestras, with 12 GRAMMY® nominations and two Emmy Awards.
By Brian Wilson
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Sheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35 • The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Musical Pictures, Op. 57
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov originally intended a naval career, following the example of his elder brother. He showed some musical ability even as a very small child, but at the age of 14 he entered the Naval Cadet College in St Petersburg in pursuit of a more immediately attractive ambition. The city, in any case, offered musical opportunities. He continued piano lessons, but, more important than this, he was able to enjoy the opera and attend his first concerts.
It was in 1861, the year before he completed his course at the Naval College, that Rimsky-Korsakov met Balakirev, a musician who was to become an important influence on him, as he himself was on the young army officers Mussorgsky and Cui, who already formed part of his circle. The meeting had a far-reaching effect on Rimsky-Korsakov’s career, although in 1862 he set sail as a midshipman on a cruise that was to keep him away from Russia for the next two and a half years.
On his return in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov fell again under the influence of Balakirev. On shore there was more time for music and the encouragement he needed for a serious application to music that resulted in compositions in which he showed his early ability as an orchestrator and his deftness in the use of Russian themes, a gift that Balakirev did much to encourage as part of his campaign to create a truly Russian form of music. In 1871 he took a position as professor of instrumentation and composition at St Petersburg Conservatory and the following year he resigned his commission in the navy, to become a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands, a position created for him through personal and family influence.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s subsequent career was a distinguished one. At the same time he accepted the duty of completing and often orchestrating works left unfinished by other composers of the new Russian school. As early as 1869 Dargomizhsky had left him the task of completing the opera The Stone GueSt Twenty years later he was to perform similar tasks for the music of Mussorgsky and for Borodin, both of whom had left much undone at the time of their deaths. Relations with Balakirev were not always easy and he was to become associated with Belyayev and his schemes for the publication of new Russian music, a connection that Balakirev could only see as disloyalty. There were other influences on his composition, particularly with his first hearing of Wagner’s Ring in 1889 and consequent renewed attention to opera, after a brief period of depression and silence, the result of illness and death in his family.
Rimsky-Korsakov was involved in the disturbances of 1905, when he sided with the Conservatory students, joining with some colleagues in a public demand for political reform, an action that brought his dismissal from the institution, to which he was able to return when his pupil and friend Glazunov became director the following year. He died in 1908.
The symphonic suite Sheherazade was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov in the winter of 1887–1888, taking as its literary inspiration excerpts from Tales of the Arabian Nights, the fascinating series of stories told by the beautiful Sheherazade in an effort to postpone her execution at the orders of her royal master. The choice of subject exemplifies the attraction that the neighbouring cultures of Islam has had over Russian composers in search of exotic material. In his own description of Sheherazade Rimsky-Korsakov rebuts the notion that his themes are, in general, connected solely to particular events in the Arabian Nights, although the sinuous oriental solo violin melody is associated with the story-teller herself. The thematic material, however, appears in different forms to convey differing moods and pictures. Other ideas had been suggested by the sea, Sinbad’s ship, Prince Kalender, the Prince and Princess, the Festival in Baghdad and the ship dashed against the rock with the bronze rider on it. The composer himself described the suite as a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character. The musical material, whatever its narrative significance, is, in any case, worked out symphonically. His original intention had been to give the movements the uninformative titles Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. He was later persuaded to add programmatic titles, which he later regretted and withdrew.
Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan largely during the summer of 1899, the libretto based by Vladimir Ivanovich Byelsky on the poem by Pushkin, the centenary of whose birth it celebrates. The work was first performed in Moscow by a private opera company, a successor to the company established by Mamontov, who had been imprisoned for debts incurred in the construction of railways. It was well received, although a later private production in St Petersburg proved unsatisfactory.
The Tale of Tsar Saltan, a stylised fairy-tale, tells the story of the marriage of Tsar Saltan to the youngest of three sisters, who bears him a son, Prince Guidon. Saltan, absent at the wars, is told by the Tsarina’s jealous sisters, that she has borne him a monster, and commands that she and the child be put in a barrel and sent out to sea. Mother and son are eventually stranded on a desert island, where Guidon, now coming to manhood, saves a swan from attack by a kite, breaking the power of a sorcerer. As the Tsarina and Guidon sleep, the city of Ledenets appears on the island, and Guidon is welcomed by the people, released from enchantment, as their prince. The city has three wonders, a magic squirrel that eats nuts of gold and sings, thirty-three magic knights, who emerge sometimes from the sea, and the Swan-Princess, whom Guidon had rescued and who eventually reveals herself to him in human form. Saltan, hearing of these wonders, sails to the island and is amazed to find there his beloved wife and a prince who greets him as father. The famous Flight of the Bumblebee is heard in Act III of the opera, when Guidon, transformed with the help of the Swan-Princess into a bee, stings his wicked aunts and the old witch who has helped them. The Musical Pictures from the opera, which were performed before the first performance of the opera itself, include the music for the departure of Tsar Saltan, an introduction to Act I, music from later in the Act, as the Tsarina and her baby are sent out to sea in a barrel, and the musical picture of the three wonder of Ledenets.
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