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Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) (left), entails 45 minutes of incandescent orchestral virtuosity. In it, the Russian composer recreates the musical tales that kept a king riveted and kept Scheherazade alive for 1,001 Arabian Nights.

Conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Orchestra kept the audience riveted with their performance of Scheherazade for this season's opening night gala concert at Carnegie Hall.

Notes on the Program
By Bernard Jacobson

Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite, Op. 35
Rimsky-Korsakov was born on March 18, 1844, in Tikhvin, Russia, and died on June 21, 1908, in Lyubensk. He wrote Scheherazade in 1888; it was first performed under the composer's direction at the Club of Nobility in St. Petersburg on December 3 of that year. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, tam-tam), harp, and strings (including an important solo violin part). Performance time is approximately 40 minutes. Scheherazade received its Carnegie Hall premiere on January 17, 1900, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Gericke.

Some works are too popular for their own good. Scheherazade has always been such a favorite with audiences that certain musicians and critics, careful of their reputation for high-mindedness and intellectual distinction, have felt called upon to scoff at it. A remark of Stravinsky's may serve to illustrate the attitude in question: "It is not, generally, a good sign when the first thing we remark about a work is its instrumentation, and the composers we remark it of-Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel-are not the best composers."

Psychologists-the outraged listener may well feel as he revels in Scheherazade's luscious sonorities-would have had a word for what Stravinsky is doing, and that word is "projection." There may also be a touch of biting the hand that taught him. Stravinsky was Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil, and it is certainly open to question whether a work like The Firebird, with all its Rimskyan echoes, does not qualify the student for a place on his own list alongside his master.

Firebird, derivative or not, has won its own firm position in the orchestral repertoire, but certainly not at the expense of Scheherazade, which has become such a fixture on the orchestral scene that even the most occasional of concert-goers is likely to have encountered it. In any case, if Scheherazade's instrumentation is what strikes us first, there are other qualities that run it a close second. Sheer melodic invention is one of them: in Scheherazade there are more memorable tunes per minute than most composers achieve in an hour's worth of music.

What also ought to be noticed, but sometimes isn't, is that Rimsky-Korsakov marshals his material with absolute sureness of aim and no little subtlety. Notice the diversifications of phrasing that invigorate the rhythmic treatment of the first movement's main theme-an initial phrase of four measures plus a one-measure echo, then three measures, then a further contraction to a measure and a half. Notice how ingeniously the same theme is later dovetailed with a more rapid figure taken over from the solo violin's theme. Notice, in the rhythmic sphere again, the progressive tightening of pulse that averts any danger of squareness in the fanfare theme of the second movement.

Such ingenuities are to be found throughout the score, and they perhaps explain why Scheherazade has kept its hold on the public while dozens of more facile works that share its melodic charm have disappeared from view. Aside from purely musical considerations of this kind, the suite's association with that endlessly fascinating literary classic, The Thousand and One Nights, is not the least of its attractions. So far as narrative details are concerned, however, it is possible to make too much of this association, as the following excerpt from Rimsky-Korsakov's autobiography shows:

I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by common themes and motifs, yet presenting as it were a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and patterns of Oriental character..My aversion for ascribing too definite a program to the work led me subsequently (in the new edition) to remove even those hints of it that had been contained in the headings of each movement..I intended these hints to lead the hearer's imagination only delicately in the direction my own imagination had followed, leaving more specific and detailed ideas to the will and mood of each listener.

For most of us the purely musical qualities of Scheherazade may indeed constitute the work's main attraction. But they are vividly reinforced by their pictorial and human associations: stirring exploits on sea and land; heroism and exoticism; idyllic young love; the teeming sights, sounds, and almost palpable smells of an Oriental bazaar; and, hovering over all, the gently insinuating art of the narrator-heroine, embodied in the curvaceous lines of the solo violin part. It is a potent brew, and its savor, already relished around the world for over a century, is likely to outlast the paler inventions of many a more ambitious and intellectual score.

-Copyright 2003 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

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