A Mesmerizing Tale

courtesy of Artsy Craftsy, LLC

Oh, a magnificent story can captivate even the most complacent listeners! Rimsky-Korsakov’s shimmering Scheherazade elevates storytelling through the magic of four movements in a symphonic suite that draws on the Indian, Persian, and Arabic tales of The One Thousand and One Nights (commonly known as The Arabian Nights). The symphony includes all the elements of a literary masterpiece:

  • A Problem or Dilemma;
  • Unforgettable Characters;
  • Passionate Dialogue;
  • Rising Actions of Intrigue;
  • A Satisfying Conclusion

The Colorado Music Festival with guest conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni performed this amazing artistic jewel at Chautauqua Auditorium in July at the base of the Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado. The sky was blue on a sweltering summer day with but a hint of a fluttering breeze.

The Flatirons
Chautauqua Auditorium

What sizzled inside the auditorium however, was a vibrant tale that electrified the air and pulsed beyond the wooden slats to the Flatirons outside. Indeed, the tiny follicles on my neck lifted to new heights with adrenaline and inspiration.

Chautauqua Summer Concert Series by Benko Photographics courtesy of Colorado Chautauqua Association

A good story, of course, has a dilemma and in this story the problem looms with enormity. The newly married Persian Princess Scheherazade faces the unsettling track record of her mate. This Sultan routinely executes his new brides one-by-one the very next morning after the wedding night.

Painting by Edouard Frederic Wilhelm Richter of Sheherazade, public domain

Rimsky-Korsakov is a master at characterization as we listen to the Sultan’s threatening tirades in the voice of the trombones, tuba, lower woodwinds, and strings. The intensity of his persona is frightfully heart-wrenching. This is no charade. Doom awaits Scheherazade unless she can think of some way to escape the Sultan’s wrath, but how?

Rimsky-Korsakov’s genius shines through in the fluid voice of Scheherazade rising and falling from the solo violin with the accompaniment of the harp as was the customary instrument chosen by the seasoned bards of old. The music unfolds in a frame story which is a literary technique of a story within a story. Now, the princess begins to spin one breath-taking tale after another in hopes of diverting the Sultan’s intentions for at least one more day. This is about a princess storyteller telling stories to save her life.

And the stories she weaves include the characters of Sinbad at sea; a Kalandar-Prince who is steeped in misfortune; a young prince and princess sensuously in love; and a myriad of merchants, dancers and festival-goers in Baghdad. These are colorful characters whose lively dialogues soar from the instruments. The dialogue is rich and diverse and multilayered.

But Scheherazade gives only enough information to keep the Sultan rapt with intrigue as Rimsky-Korsakov gave only enough detail about his sources of inspiration to keep the interpretation of his symphonic suite fluid. Just when the Sultan (and today’s symphonic audience) think they have the particulars figured out, the stories turn. The element of surprise keeps us engaged. Things are not as predictable as they seem. This is the trademark of good storytelling.

“The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade, consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite: the sea and Sinbad’s ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalandar, the Prince and Princess, the Baghdad festival and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it … I meant that these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy… All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other …”
—Rimsky-Korsakov in his memoirs

Rimsky-Korsakov at work as painted by Valentin Serov, Public Domain

And then comes the breathtaking climax as Sinbad’s ship crashes into a mighty rock and we simultaneously feel the jolting trajectory of impact, the cold thrashing waves, and the Sultan storming into the bedroom as Scheherazade begins her final story.

“The ship struck upon a rock” from Edmund Dulac’s illustations for One Thousand and One Nights, public domain

Here we hear every brilliant shade of color; every scent of perfume, spice, and whiff of the crowd; every touch of fine silk or coarse fur in the marketplace as she takes us to the festival in Baghdad. Earlier themes return to the story as she weaves all previous characters back into her final tapestry. Her beautiful voice is calling us back.

The solo violin beckons high above the low, subdued tones of the Sultan.  She has more than lulled him now. She has changed his heart.

From the ingenuity of her intellect, Scheherazade spins tales of adventure, love, and awe-inspiring mystique in the setting of the old world Orient and Middle East that ultimately saves her life and the lives of others. But it is the tremulous flicker of love in her heart that truly sparks the deeper redemptive change to a man lost in his own destructive powers. Like all superb storytellers, Scheherazade offers understanding to the hearts of her listeners.

Thanks for stopping by.

Brock Media. Colorado Music Festival program. Boulder, 2017