Scheherazade Listening Guide

Inside a palace with blue walls and colourful rugs on floor and ceiling.

The “inspired musical illustrator of fairytales”, Rimsky-Korsakov, tells the tale of Scheherazade, the young bride from the Arabian Nights who protects herself from death by telling nightly stories to her barbaric husband, the Sultan.

By Sophie Rashbrook


“All I wanted,” said Rimsky-Korsakov, “was that the hearer, if he liked the piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is undoubtedly an oriental narrative of numerous and varied fairytale marvels, and not merely four pieces played one after the other and based on themes common to all four.”

But once you picture the characters in the story – the stern Sultan and his young wife – it is impossible not to read a literal narrative onto the work’s recurring musical motifs. In particular, that stern bass line in the opening movement must surely represent the murderous Sultan, while even Rimsky-Korsakov conceded that the improvisatory violin solo, with its sumptuous harp accompaniment, evokes Scheherazade as she conjures her wondrous tales.

It is a landscape of musical marvels: there is a reason that Rimsky-Korsakov’s guide to orchestration is still studied in conservatoires today. You are in the hands of a master musical storyteller, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the journey.


The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (Largo)

‘Sinbad sailing the sea’ was the original title of this movement, and it’s pleasing to recall that Rimsky-Korsakov’s depiction of the waves is rooted in his own personal experience as a sailor. A cello solo evokes the waves beneath a surging melody that floods through the whole orchestra.


The Tale of the Kalendar Prince (Andante)

The second movement opens with a return to Scheherazade’s rhapsodic violin theme – swiftly interrupted by a stab of tremolo strings and impish triplet exchange between the trombone and the trumpet.

We have arrived in the Tale of the Kalendar Prince, and now we start to understand why Rimsky-Korsakov refused to be drawn on precise plot points: the Arabian Nights feature three different Kalendar Princes, and it’s not entirely clear which one is referenced here.

No matter: there is high drama and excitement aplenty, with a sense of threat looming throughout.


The Young Prince and The Young Princess (Andantino)

From its opening moments, ‘The Romance of the Young Prince and Princess’, as this movement was previously known, exudes a heady, romantic perfume. It has a singing quality, characterised by lilting phrasing that dovetails naturally with the voice of Scheherazade.


Festival at Baghdad (Allegro molto)

The Sultan’s theme returns in a rapid triplet variation that alternates with the violin part, before we embark on a dizzying tour of fragmented musical episodes. Finally, with a final utterance and sky-high harmonic in the violin, Scheherazade’s tale reaches its happy conclusion: a testament to the power of storytelling.


© Philharmonia Orchestra/Sophie Rashbrook

The Philharmonia performs Scheherazade, alongside Ravel’s Boléro and Saint-Saëns’s second piano concerto, on Sunday 6 February 2022 at 3pm at the Royal Festival Hall.