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Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade fired up the imaginations of audiences and choreographers alike

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade fired up the imaginations of audiences and choreographers alike featured image

Monday, March 18, 2019

Scheherazade (a name to this day I have to look up to confirm spelling), is a familiar piece that we’ve all heard at one time or another.  You can thank Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for composing it. Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of The Five, a collective committed to furthering a nationalist, Russian sound of classical music. Other members were Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, and Modest Mussorgsky. As a composer, Rimsky-Korsakov was considered the guy who spearheaded what was considered a “Russian sound”. He was a major influence on Russian composes to follow; his influence reached non-Russians too, of course: Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, and Ottorino Respighi.

Scheherazade is a symphonic suite written in 1888 and is based on The Arabian Nights. The bright and varied orchestration with influences from the East is typical of the Russian sound that was so important to Rimsky-Korsakov. The idea was to create a feeling of “fantastical narratives from the Orient”, as it was referred to back then. He originally titled the four movements using traditional terms – “Prelude”, “Ballade”, “Adagio”, and “Finale” – but had second thoughts. After debating with friends like composer and teacher Anatoly Lyadov, he confirmed his aversion to a too-definitive program, and settled on thematic headings: “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship”; “The Story of the Kalandar Prince”; “The Young Prince and Princess”; and “Festival at Baghdad”. I’m glad he did – these titles are far more imaginative.

Scheherazade has been used for choreography, and the legendary ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was the first to dance to this music. Fast forward to recent decades; it’s been used for singles figure skaters like Midori Ito, Michelle Kwan, Yuna Kim, Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner, and Evan Lysacek, who skated to Olympic gold in Vancouver with this music (among other composers, such as Stravinsky) in 2010 . Ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis won the 2014 Olympics with it.

Here’s the link to Evan Lysacek’s performance here.

And here’s Maestro Valery Gergiev conducting the full work with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born March 18, 1844 outside of St. Petersburg, Russia, and died June 21, 1908, in Pskov Oblast.


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