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'Scheherazade,' 1001 Nights Retold in a Symphony

The Sultan Forgives Scheherazade by Arthur Boyd Houghton (1836-1875). (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Bedtime stories took on a new meaning for Scheherazade. Her husband, the Sultan, had the nasty habit of marrying a woman at night and killing her in the morning.

So Scheherazade thought up a plan. Every night she would tell him a story, and leave it hanging. 1001 captivating stories later, he decided to keep her.

These Tales of the Arabian Nights inspired Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov to compose a symphonic suite called Scheherazade in 1888. In the hands of a good orchestra and conductor, it's a technicolor tour de force.

Conductor Marin Alsop says a successful performance of Scheherazade is all about telling the story.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is the musical voice of Scheherazade. Remember her? She's the young princess who kept her husband, the insipid King from executing her by telling him entrancing stories.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Wouldn't you spare her life, too, just to hear more?

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: More than a century, accurate(ph) was written. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" remains a hugely popular orchestral work. It's based on the Persian stories of "One Thousand and One Nights."

Scheherazade is also a favorite of Maestro Marin Aslop, who performed recently with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She joins us in our studios. What a pleasure to have you back with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Conductor, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): It's wonderful to be here. Thanks.

SIMON: Rimsky-Korsakov called this piece a kaleidoscope of fairytale images.

Ms. ALSOP: I think that's a perfect depiction of it because it's not a literal portrayal. It's really almost a woven experience, so we hear Scheherazade's voice. And then we have this different themes representing different topics, different characters and they're all woven. As soon as you think you're going one direction, it takes a turn, you know, as she changes her story. And it really is like a kaleidoscope of tales, I think.

SIMON: It's a symphonic suite.

Ms. ALSOP: Correct. But it's interesting the way he structured it because it's in four separate movements.

SIMON: The first movement is called the "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship."

(Soundbite of song, "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship")

SIMON: This is "The Sea." This is the unfolding waves.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah. Can't you hear the undulations back and forth, and up and down. And what's amazing is the way Rimsky-Korsakov doesn't make anything obvious and nothing's actually symmetrical so all the phrases are five-bar phrases, instead of your typical four-bar phrases. And every time you think you're out on arrival point, harmonically he goes somewhere else. So she's already weaving this tale that the King can't quite follow so that he's drawn into her storytelling.

SIMON: Does every character introduced in the piece have his or her what amounts to theme music?

Ms. ALSOP: Pretty much. I mean, it's almost like a many opera, little drama going on. So at the very, very opening of the piece, you hear this huge brass beam.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: And this represents the King, the Sultan, and his voice. And that, well, obviously, returned throughout the piece as he tries to interrupt her or move her along.

SIMON: Characters change as the stories progress?

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah. The quality of the themes takes on really different attitudes as you go along. I think the most telling is the King or the Sultan's theme, which starts out so gruffly and then gets more and more excited.

SIMON: Let's hear another theme, "The Young Prince" of the second part.

(Soundbite of song, "The Young Prince")

SIMON: And what's this music saying to us?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, this is depicting what is called "The Kalendar Prince." And by Kalendar, we don't mean, you know, a scheduled prince but it means a magician. And so, you hear - thematically, this is a very, almost abracadabra, kind of, you know…

(Singing)

Ms. ALSOP: You know, what you see is not what you get. That's something up your sleep, kind of - and also I have love the exotic quality of it. You know, it starts in the bassoon and then it goes to oboe. He keeps it in this, sort of, unique woodwind sounds.

(Soundbite of "The Tale of Kalendar Prince")

SIMON: Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer who tried to work Russian themes, in Russian culture as opposed to ones derived from, let's say, western European music into his.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, definitely. I think that the colors of the Russian folk music - it's almost everything's in Technicolor with Rimsky-Korsakov. And he's renowned, really, is for his orchestrations, the way he was able to expand the pallet of the orchestra, and you can here this in "Scheherazade," you know. He uses little triangles and the tambourine comes in. And all these just small touches that makes such a huge coloristic difference.

(Soundbite of song, "Scheherazade")

SIMON: When you tell musicians they're going to be playing in this piece, do they get excited?

Ms. ALSOP: It's interesting because this is a piece that used to be hugely popular in the concert hall. And I think it, sort of, cycled out for a while and now, it's starting to come back again. And it was always a favorite with the public and I think musicians love it because it's such an opportunity for them to be in the spotlight.

I mean, there are enormous solos, not just the depiction of Scheherazade by the concertmaster in these incredible violin souls, but the clarinet and the bassoon, and the flute and the oboe and the horn. They're all featured in a very spectacular way.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the third section, "The Young Prince and the Young Princess." Now, this opens with a new musical theme.

(Soundbite of song, "The Young Prince and the Young Princess")

SIMON: Now, this sounds as if, their eyes have just met.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes. But they're a little bit shy too.

SIMON: Yes.

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, it is so. I mean, it's so heartfelt, though and sweet. It's absolutely beautiful movement and thematically it's just lovely. And it provides, I think, a wonderful respite in a way from the themes that we've been hearing because this is something completely new.

SIMON: Yeah. That's very touching romantic, but I mean, you know, doesn't lead anywhere. Let's put it that way.

Ms. ALSOP: Boy, does it leave somewhere? I mean, that definitely gets some pretty hot and heavy in the middle of this section, the third movement, and this romance really at its height. But, of course, like everything, it's worth waiting for.

(Soundbite of song, "The Young Prince and the Young Princess.")

SIMON: Kind of, hard to hold on to the baton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Mark my work.

Ms. ALSOP: Yes. What I mean, that was good for me. How was it for you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Just - just wonderful.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Final section is called "The Festival at Baghdad - The Sea and Shipwreck." That's an awful lot cover.

Ms. ALSOP: It is. But, you know, you got to wrap it up quickly at the end of the story. And he's trying to sum everything up.

SIMON: What does he do to tie all of these themes together?

Ms. ALSOP: What happens is that at the beginning of the last movement, first we hear the theme of the King or the Sultan.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ALSOP: And that's in this hurried, rather frenetic character now where he's saying come, come, you got to tell me the end of the story. Because, of course, Scheherazade is weaving these stories in order to avoid being executed.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: So she has a clear motive to keep on talking?

Ms. ALSOP: So she is highly motivated and she's trying to drag it on as long as possible. And he's - you know, I want to hear to end. I want to hear the end. And you know, the beauty of this piece is that through her story telling, she was able to distract the Sultan long enough that he forgets to tell the executioner to come back. And so there are no women that are put death again after her incredible tale of telling.

SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop, thanks very much for being with us again.

Ms. ALSOP: Great to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: Marin Aslop is conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, talking this week about Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade."

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And we're listening to a recording of a concert that Maestro Alsop conducted just last week with the Baltimore Symphony and concertmaster Jonathan Carney. You can also read an essay by the maestro and hear more of the music from "Scheherazade" at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of credits)

SIMON: I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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