Skip to main content

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade

Hi! Do you like listening to stories?


Have you heard the breath-taking adventures from Arabia, including Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves?


They date back to the 9th century and were included in The Arabic Nights, a collection of tales passed down from generation to generation. One of the most popular stories takes place in the ancient Persia (modern Iran). Scheherazade is the young new bride of Sultan Shariar. Having been betrayed by his first wife, the Sultan takes a new bride every day and has her executed the next morning. To save her skin and to prevent others from the same fate, Scheherazade asks to marry the Sultan. Each evening she tells the Sultan an enthralling story and keeps it in suspense. The Sultan does not want to kill her the next day as he is so eager to hear the end of the tale. This goes on for 1,001 nights. These stories not only brought the Sultan enjoyment but encouraged him to value morality and empathy. 


Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an orchestral suite in 1888, taking “Scheherazade” as its English name. The piece uses the story of Scheherazade and the Sultan as the frame, along with other stories from The Arabian Nights. Rimsky-Korsakov used to serve in the navy which took him to various places around the world. However, he preferred to be a composer, and having settled on the land, he depicted through his compositions his imagination of the world, especially the enigmatic orient. The composer only touched the stories of The Arabian Nightsbriefly in the musical score. In fact, with his brilliant orchestration he used a rich palette of sound to illustrate a mysterious and unfamiliar Arabic world to the audience. 


The orchestral suite consists of four movements linked by two melodies representing the Sultan and Scheherazade. At the beginning of the first movement, lower brass plays the Sultan melody which has is solemn and noble; and the refined and attractive Scheherazade melody is played by the solo violin. Variations of these two melodies appear in different movement. You can appreciate their multitude of characters when listening to the piece.