One of the most wonderful things about classical music is how every piece tells a story. Sometimes, the story is about the creation of the piece; how the composer was inspired or the challenges they faced to compose a finished product. In other cases, the music itself tells the story, often with different instruments taking on the voices of characters, themes or settings. Often, these stories are ones that have been heard time and time again in many different forms.
The Hamilton Philharmonic’s February 15 concert is a perfect example of the latter. Not only is Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade a story; it’s a story about one of the greatest storytellers in history and the tales she wove to save her life and the lives of others.
After a wife cheated on her Sultan husband, the Sultan decided to take a new wife every day, only to have her executed the next morning. But when Scheherazade married the Sultan, she had a plan. Every night, Scheherazade told the Sultan fascinating stories. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, repeatedly postponed her execution until the following day, for fear of not knowing how the story would end. This continued for one-thousand and one nights, until the Sultan relented and spared her life.
These one-thousand and one nights also became known in other mediums as The Arabian Nights and in addition to telling the story of Scheherazade herself through music, Rimsky-Korsakov also shares her suspenseful stories. Interestingly, when being written, Rimsky-Korsakov had intended to name the four movements in Scheherazade in classical style (“Prelude,” “Ballade,” “Adagio” and “Finale”). However, upon receiving feedback, he later settled upon thematic headings, based upon The Arabian Nights stories.
The symphonic suite opens with a solemn line from the brass, representing the Sultan. Rimsky-Korsakov wastes no time introducing the audience to the heroine of the story who responds immediately. Scheherazade is represented in a solo violin, and audience members can look to the front and centre of the stage to HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski for these notes. The harp immediately follows, lulling the audience into her stories. This exchange is repeated throughout the piece, representing the start of each new tale.
Four stories are depicted in Scheherazade, with the first being “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.” In this movement, the cellos provide the rocking motion of the waves as the violins play a melody. In the second movement, “The Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” woodwind instruments are given solos meant to mimic sounds of eastern music and create a sense of mystery and adventure.
The third movement, the “Young Prince and Young Princess,” presents a central love story. The entire movement is extremely lyrical, but partway through, Scheherazade’s now familiar theme returns. One could imagine she has paused- perhaps for the evening, or to provide a comment on the story itself. However, as the music of the prince and princess of her story return, they blend with the solo violin that is known as the character of Scheherazade. The final climax of this movement, complete with cymbal crash, represents not just the love of the prince and princess, but of Scheherazade and the Sultan.
The final movement, “The Festival at Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck on a Rock; Conclusion,” begins with the brass theme of the Sultan. This time, it’s impatient, clearly eager to hear how the story ends. The music returns to the sounds of the waves and integrates sounds of the prince and princess as one imagines Scheherazade weaving each of her stories together. The Sultan’s melody is heard once more- but this time, it’s subdued and fading. Instead, it is the solo violin melody of Scheherazade that emerges as victorious and clear as the piece concludes, as she triumphs and saves her own life.
The HPO’s February 15th concert also features the overture to Rossini’s final opera, Semiramide, as well as a twentieth-century trombone concerto by Tomasi, performed by HPO Principal Trombone David Pell. However, Scheherazade, the only piece on the concert’s second half is such a dramatic and fantastical work with such popularity that the performance will be a stand-out moment of the HPO’s season. With the opportunity for each member of the orchestra to shine in Scheherazade, it’s easy to see why this work is a favourite for both orchestras and audiences.