From Scheherazade to a Night in the Tropics



In the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights, the storyteller Scheherazade is a clever young woman. An evil Sultan, humiliated by the infidelity of one of his many wives, cooks up a plan to punish all women: he takes a new wife each day, spends a single night with her, then executes her the next morning. The bloodshed ends with Scheherazade, who marries the Sultan in order to save all future young women. Beginning on her wedding night, she tells the Sultan fascinating stories, leaving him in such suspense each night that he can’t kill her. After 1,001 nights of storytelling, the Sultan finally gives up his murderous plan and allows Scheherazade to live. 

Rimsky-Korsakov set this narrative to music in his most popular orchestral work, Scheherazade (1888). In four movements, he portrays the exotic locale of the fairy tale and offers two distinct musical themes to represent the Sultan and Scheherazade. The Sultan’s theme opens the piece, played in unison by low instruments. It is a loud, domineering theme; you can almost hear the big, burly Sultan entering the room, daring anyone to challenge him. After some chords from the woodwind section, a solo violin presents Scheherazade’s theme. In contrast to the Sultan’s, it is tender, winding its way effortlessly up and down the instrument, accompanied only by a softly strumming harp. After this introduction, Scheherazade launches into her story of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.” Listen for the sounds of undulating waves, sometimes wrapped up with the Sultan’s theme, as he seems to angrily pace the room as Scheherazade’s story wears on. 

The two characters’ themes sound repeatedly throughout the work. Listen especially for Scheherazade (again played by the solo violin) at the start of the second movement, as she begins the story of “The Kalandar Prince.” Her theme returns to begin a cadenza-like passage for solo violin in the middle of the third movement, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess.” At the start of the fourth movement, the Sultan’s theme, played at a brisker tempo, sounds impatient for the story to continue. His theme is followed by Scheherazade’s, more ornamented than in previous iterations. The two themes alternate again before launching into the story of the “Festival of Baghdad.” 

At the very end of the piece we hear Scheherazade’s theme once more played by solo violin. This is followed by the Sultan’s theme, which is now more subdued as he seems to have given up on his plot to kill Scheherazade. The piece winds down peacefully, with many long, sustained notes in the solo violin. One can imagine that the victorious Scheherazade is finally allowed a decent night’s sleep. 

This piece is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings. 



BORN: May 8, 1829 | New Orleans, Louisiana

DIED: December 18, 1869 | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In the mid-1840s, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was in Paris receiving the proper music education that his father felt was not available in his native New Orleans. The so-called “Chopin of the Creoles” grew up surrounded by diverse musical styles, including those of the enslaved people of New Orleans that would gather on Sundays at Congo Square and perform music of their varied cultures. And so, in 1847, when Gottschalk premiered the two compositions that would propel his popularity in Paris and throughout Europe — Bamboula (Danse des nègres) and La Savane — audiences heard hints of these musical traditions and bestowed upon Gottschalk the responsibility of spokesman for music of the New World.

Gottschalk returned to the United States in 1853, but from 1857 on spent most of his time touring the Caribbean and Central and South America. In each city he resided in, he would produce a “monster concert” that employed hundreds of musicians performing newly composed works that highlighted the local color. It was at one such concert in Havana in 1860 that the Symphonie Romantique premiered.

Though called a symphony, this two-movement work is more like a tone poem that paints a picture of the tropical setting of its premiere. In the first movement, “Night in the Tropics,” a languid theme featuring strings and horn frames a more agitated central section. And in the second movement, “Festa Criolla,” Gottschalk returns to the musical material of Bamboula that made him famous a decade earlier, and which he likely heard at Congo Square. A bamboula is a Haitian drum made from a rum barrel, and a style of syncopated music and dance that uses this drum. The influence of bamboula can be heard in this movement’s bold syncopations and colorful percussion including claves, guiro and congas.



Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

BORN: March 18, 1844 | Tikhvin, Russia

DIED: June 21, 1908 | Liubensk, Russia

Today, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is widely regarded as a master of orchestration, able to choose just the right instruments played in just the right way to create his desired effect. So it comes as no surprise that he was offered a Professorship in Practical Composition and Instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. However, Rimsky-Korsakov never had formal composition training, but rather relied solely on intuition to create his sparkling orchestral scores. Undeterred by his lack of qualifications, he accepted the job and, with the help of his colleague Tchaikovsky, learned as he taught, always staying just one step ahead of his students.

Two of Rimsky-Korsakov’s best-known pieces are performed on this program, and both showcase his dazzling orchestration skills. In Capriccio Espagnol (1887), those skills are put to work in a five-movement suite based on Spanish folk melodies.

The piece opens with a festive Spanish dance called an “Alborada,” which literally means “daybreak” and likely stems from the tradition of welcoming the day with music. This dance is followed by a slow second movement in which the horns present a melody that is then varied by the other instruments of the orchestra. The third movement returns to the “Alborada,” though in a different key and with different instrumentation.

The fourth movement — “Scene and Gypsy Song” — begins with five short cadenzas, each accompanied by percussion rolls. Horns and trumpets, solo violin, flute, clarinet, and harp each have a brief chance to shine. Then the “Gypsy Song” commences as a dance in which the strings imitate a Spanish guitar. This movement leads without break into the lively dance of the final movement, before the “Alborada” theme returns once more to conclude the piece.

This piece is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

– Program notes by Sarah Ruddy, Ph.D.