II. "The Kalendar Prince"
Summer 1888 at Neyzhgovitsy on the shore of Lake Cheryemenyetskoye
November 3, 1888 in St. Petersburg, with Rimsky-Korsakov conducting
The idea for Scheherazade came to Rimsky-Korsakov during the early winter months of 1888 as he worked to complete Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor. Rimsky-Korsakov’s output had diminished significantly since his appointment in 1883 as the assistant to his mentor, Mily Balakeriev, at the Court Kapella,1 and much of this time was spent editing and revising his older works along with those of colleagues like Modest Mussorgsky (who had died in 1881). It is possible that Rimsky-Korsakov’s inspiration for a work with an Oriental character came from the Polovtsian Dances of Prince Igor,2 but exposure to such soundscapes can be traced back to as early as Balakeriev’s Tamara.3 Indeed, the recurring solo violin sections of Scheherazade seem to be an idea that Rimsky-Korsakov borrowed unabashedly from the earlier symphonic poem of his teacher.
The title Scheherazade is taken from the book Arabian Nights (also known as One Thousand and One Nights). In the book, the Sultan Schahriar discovers that his wife has been unfaithful, and, in his heartbreak, concludes that no woman can ever be trusted again. The hardened Sultan begins marrying virgins one after the next, and has each executed the following morning before they have an opportunity to betray him. The clever Scheherazade, however, devises a plan to keep the Sultan captivated by telling him stories each evening, always ending on a cliffhanger. After a thousand and one nights of breathtaking stories, Scheherazade wins the heart of the Sultan, along with his pardon.
The story of Scheherazade and the Sultan is a form of storytelling known as a “framed narrative.” It is a way of presenting shorter stories (in this case, the tales that Scheherazade presents to the Sultan) within a larger, overarching narrative that binds them all together. Rimsky-Korsakov utilizes this storytelling technique in Scheherazade by having the solo violin represent the title character throughout the suite, and this recurring material acts to connect the four movements of Scheherazade in the same way that the larger story of Scheherazade and the Sultan connects the smaller tales of Arabian Nights.
In his memoir My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov discusses the connective musical features of Scheherazade:
The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazada consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite: the sea and Sindbad’s ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalendar, the Prince and the Princess, the Bagdad festival, and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it. The unifying thread consisted of the brief introductions to the first, second, and fourth movements and the intermezzo in movement three, written for violin solo and delineating Scheherazada herself as telling wondrous tales to the stern Sultan. The final conclusion of movement four serves the same artistic purpose.4
Although Rimsky-Korsakov makes it clear that the violin represents Scheherazade, he also goes on to insist that any other motivic connections were never intended (though he understands why listeners might make such assumptions). One common misconception, for example, is that the Sultan has a recurring theme as well:
In vain do people seek in my suite leading motives linked unbrokenly with ever the same poetic ideas and conceptions. On the contrary, in the majority of cases, all these seeming Leitmotive 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 others. Appearing as they do each time under different illumination, depicting each time different traits, and expressing different moods, the same given motives and themes correspond each time to different images, actions, and pictures… The unison phrase, as though depicting Scheherazada’s stern spouse, at the beginning of the suite appears as a datum, in the Kalendar’s Narrative, where there cannot, however, be any mention of Sultan Shakhriar.5
There are a number of recurring motives threaded throughout the suite, but Rimsky-Korsakov insists that they are purely musical in function and do not represent any specific characters or events. Interestingly, Rimsky-Korsakov eventually removed the original thematic names for each movement in a later edition, but that change was never widely adopted:
Originally I had even intended to label Movement I of Scheherazada Prelude; II, Ballade; III, Adagio; and IV, Finale; but on the advice of Lyadov and others I had not done so. My aversion for seeking too definite a program in my composition led me subsequently (in the new edition) to do away with even those hints of it which had lain in the headings of each movement, like The Sea; Sindbad’s Ship; The Kalendar’s Narrative; and so forth. In composing Scheherazada I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had travelled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each. 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 and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements.6
So, how does all of this affect us as bassoonists? In short, according to Rimsky-Korsakov, the solo and cadenzas found in “The Kalendar Prince” do not actually represent any character or plot point. This may be a difficult notion to accept, but Rimsky-Korsakov clearly and emphatically states that to be the case. Instead, the bassoon solo functions as a sort of expository opening to Scheherazade’s tale of the Kalendar Prince, presenting the audience with the mood and setting for the musical adventure to come.
1 Rimsky-Korsakov has begun studying composition with Balakeriev in 1861.
2 Field, 463.
3 Balakeriev began work on Tamara in 1861, though he did not fully complete it until 1882.
4 Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, ed. Carl van Vechten, trans. Judah A. Joffe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1942), 292.
5 Ibid., 292-93.
6 Rimsky-Korsakov, 293-94.