Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade


When he was a boy, Rimsky-Korsakov’s imagination was hungry for travel. He was confined in his small Russian town until he was a teenager. He received letters from his older brother, Voin, who was in the Far East serving in the Navy and he fell in love with the seas he’d never even seen. For many years Rimsky-Korsakov wanted to be in the Navy, like his brother and other family members. However, when he was introduced to Mussorgsky, Cui and Balakirev at the age of 17, he was hooked on a career in music.

Rimsky-Korsakov did travel the world, however. A thirty-month cruise after he graduated from the College of Naval Cadets in 1856 took him to places such as New York City, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney. After his return to Russia, Rimsky-Korsakov rarely left his home country once again. After immersing himself in other musics, in particular the works of Alexander Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov composed his own oriental fantasy.


The Music

Inspired by The Arabian Nights collection of Indian, Persian and Arabic tales, Rimsky-Korsakov composed his symphonic suite Scheherazade in the summer of 1888, alongside his other large orchestral work Russian Easter Festival Overture. Described by the composer as “separate, unconnected episodes and pictures”, Scheherazade is composed of snapshots of other worlds, cultures and musics.

The work was premiered on 3rd November 1888 and was conducted by the composer himself. This orchestral fantasy is draped in tantalising orchestrations, orchestral colours and worldwide harmonic language, so no wonder it has become a popular Romantic showpiece. In the preface to the score, Rimsky-Korsakov writes about the story to subvert the Sultan Shahriar’s vow to kill each of his wives after the first night, the Sultana Scheherazade spins an intricate web of tales for 1001 nights, ultimately fascinating and winning over the Sultan.

However, when writing his autobiography, Rimsky-Korsakov comes away from any programmatic reading of Scheherazade, denying any musical material depicts characters from The Arabian Nights. He further comments that: “In the majority of cases, all these seeming ‘leitmotifs’ are nothing but purely musical material, the themes for symphonic development.”

The suite is in four movements and originally Rimsky-Korsakov intended to name them as their musical labels, so: Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. However, after speaking to his colleagues he decided to give each movement thematic headings, based on the tales from The Arabian Nights:


  • The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
  • The Kalandar Prince
  • The Young Prince and The Young Princess
  • Festival at Baghdad


When creating the second edition of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov got rid of these thematic titles, instead desiring that the listener should hear the work as an Oriental fairy-tale adventure:   “All I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond a 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.” 


I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship

Largo e maestoso – Lento – Allegro non troppo – Tranquillo

Within the first minute of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship Rimsky-Korsakov establishes a musical portrayal of Sultan and Sultana. The foreboding bass motif represents the sultan, with the ominous step movement creating a truly tumultuous opening. The unison section is marked ff, which represents the psychopath that used to be within the sultan. This is balanced by the seductive violin soloists, who is the voice of Scheherazade herself.

The constant movement and lilting between the different melodies makes it all the more effective when the forces of the orchestra unite for the powerful unison sections. This movement, although full of musical delights, has lots of space due to the broad changes in harmony. The development of the sultan’s theme is majestic in its delivery, with the movement ending in a dream-like state, unlike the fiery beginning.


II. The Kalandar Prince

Lento – Andantino – Allegro Molto – Vivace scherzando – Moderato assai – Allegro molto ed animato

Scheherazade’s solo violin theme opens the bashful second movement. After the heart-wrenching opening, a solo bassoon appears and whisks us off with a magical theme. The theme is then developed when the oboe takes the melody, however with the addition of pizzicato strings the character turns from foreboding to grand. The luscious string orchestration is typical Rimsky-Korsakov and is something that he is often celebrated for.

Dazzling brass fanfares disrupt the quaint 3/4 melody, which leads to one of the most explosive and creative orchestral inventions. With brass and clarinet fanfares the music move the development onward to the second half of the movement, which takes the form of a light scherzo. This movement highlights fantastical soloists, in particular in the brass and woodwind sections. The work comes to a brilliant end after the bassoon and flute solos.



III. The Young Prince and The Young Princess

Andantino quasi allegretto – Pochissimo piú mosso – Come prima – Pochissimo piú animato

The delicate third movement is perhaps the simplest of all four in terms of structure, harmony and melody. The leisurely opening is lyrical and highlights Rimsky-Korsakov’s intricate strings orchestrations. Scheherazade speaks again near the end of the movement through the solo violin, and the movement comes to a tender close.


IV. Festival at Baghdad

Allegro molto – Lento – Vivo – Allegro non troppo e maestoso – Tempo come I

The opening of the finale movement starts similarly to the opening movement, with the Sultan and Sultana in contrast with one another, however this time it much more intense. The quick and highly exciting music to follow is a tantalising concoction of themes from all four movements. With dazzling brass interludes to shimmering strings, this finale movement comes to an almighty climax before the music slows down and builds again from the ground up. The constant repetition creates an enormous impact for the listener.

Scheherazade returns for one final proclamation of her theme, which ends this highly driven movement to a solemn close. Rimsky-Korsakov described the strangely peaceful coda as representative of Scheherazade winning over the heart of the Sultan, allowing her to finally gain a peaceful night’s sleep.

Final Thoughts

Rimsky-Korsakov’s highly evocative symphonic suite Scheherazade is full to the brim with dazzling solos, melodies, harmonic language and structures. Inspired by the tales from The Arabian Nights, the work is a “kalediscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character.” 


This blog is dedicated to Sam Hughes.

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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1 Comment

Marque Thompson · 26th December 2022 at 6:35 pm

Absolutely glorious!!

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