Scheherazade’s Tales: A Fools’ Errand?

Once upon a time

A brokenhearted sultan was taking his vengeance on all women – having put his beloved wife to death upon learning of her infidelity – by taking a new bride each evening and putting her to death the next morning. He reasoned by doing so he could enjoy the companionship of a wife without having to worry about being betrayed by her. This had gone on for a very long time, when a very clever young woman named Scheherazade decided to try to put an end to this by offering herself up as the sultan’s next bride. Her ploy was to tell the sultan a bedtime story which so completely intrigued him, that when dawn came she would leave him with a cliffhanger. Since he couldn’t possibly put her death before hearing how the story ended, Scheherazade received a reprieve. The next night she would start all over again, always ending with a cliffhanger at dawn. Her plan succeeded for 1001 nights! At that point she finished her final story, by which time the sultan had fallen in love, the two of them lived happily ever after, and no more women would be put to death to assuage the Sultan’s fears.

It all turned out great in the end, but what a remarkable gamble it was for Scheherazade! One might call it the ultimate fool’s errand.

Speaking of fool’s errands

When we programmed Rimsky-Korsakov’s spectacular orchestral work, Scheherazade, it seemed like a no-brainer to enhance the performance by simply finding the stories from the epic collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights that had formed the basis of Rimsky-Korsakov’s work, bring in a storyteller, and preface each movement of the orchestra music by telling the appropriate tale. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I read in his autobiography (Rimsky-Korsakov: My Musical Life):

…I had in view the creation of an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its [musical] themes and motives, yet presenting, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character – a method that I had to a certain degree made use of in my Skazka (Fairy-tale), the musical data of which are as little distinguishable from the poetic as they are in Scheherazade…In composing Scheherazade I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had travelled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each. All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other and composed on the basis of themes common to all the four movements. Why then, if that be so, does my suite bear the name, precisely, of Scheherazade? Because this name and the title The Arabian Nights connote in everybody’s mind the East and fairy-tale wonders…”

In other words, Rimsky-Korsakov had not based his epic orchestral work Scheherazade on specific tales from The Arabian Nights collection, but only meant to hint at various images from those stories rather than musically recreating any of the exact stories themselves. Even though at one point he had assigned images from The Arabian Nights as titles for each of the four movements, this was only because he was encouraged to do so, presumably for marketing purposes. (Apparently these stories were very well known, very popular at this time and in this place.) Ultimately, however, the composer hoped to remove any of these specific references to The Arabian Nights from his musical work, and let the music speak for itself….uh-oh.

Needless to say, this put our plan for the EMSO concert into a bit of a bind. By then we were already committed to the concept of using our performance of Scheherazade as an opportunity to combine the art of storytelling with some of the music that in effect told stories as well. However, without actual, specific stories verified to be the ones Rimsky-Korsakov used, additional research, thought and hopefully creativity would have to come into play. Since this whole scheme was my idea, it was up to me to figure it out.

I began my research the way we traditionally begin any research these days, by “googling” various permutations of “Scheherazade” and “The Arabian Nights” and “1001 Arabian Nights” and “stories.” Interestingly, most essays and program notes written for performances of the orchestral Scheherazade simply alluded to the subtitles the composer had used, made reference to Scheherazade’s plight and the collection of stories called The Arabian Nights. I guess they took the composer at his word that all he meant to showcase in his orchestral music was vague references to Orientalism and the popular collection of tales. Not me, though! Off I went on my own fool’s errand!

The stories themselves are magnificent!

Reading the stories was an absolute delight. They are filled with unique and fascinating characters, with layer upon layer of completely unreasonable situations, all beautifully told. When the dust clears from this project I will be getting my hands on one of the “complete” collections and know that it will be a delight to read my way through them all.

I learned that the stories are a loose collection, perhaps dating back to the 9th century, originating in various areas of the Middle East. Manuscripts have been found dating throughout history, with various numbers of stories in each, but all centering upon the “frame story” of Scheherazade and the Sultan Shahriar. (Wikipedia has a remarkable article detailing much of the history and many of the elements of the stories:  Not having the time to search out the most recent and complete printed English translations (reportedly a 2008 edition produced by Penguin Classics, translated from the “Calcutta II” collection by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons is quite venerated), I searched through stories I could find online, my favorite being the Candlelight Stories website: which are reportedly taken from translations done by Andrew Lang in 1898 and Edward Lane in 1909 (and which the website is careful to point out are in the public domain).

Based on the subtitles Rimsky-Korsakov gave to the four movements of his Scheherazade, I was looking for stories about:

  1. “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,”
  2. “The Kalendar Prince,”
  3. The Young Prince and The Young Princess,
  4. a pastiche of “Festival at Baghdad / The Sea / The Ship Breaks Against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.”

Imagine my surprise upon discovering that the story collection Arabian Nights contains seven stories about Sinbad the Sailor, three stories about a Kalendar Prince (a kalendar, I learned is a type of beggar who for religious or other purposes shaves his head, dresses in rags, and wanders town to town), no specific stories about an unnamed Young Prince and Young Princess (although somewhere in my online research I found a source referring to the story of Prince Ibrahim and Princess Jamilah, so decided to use that as the basis for The Young Prince and Young Princess), and no stories specifically about a Festival at Baghdad, while there is a story about an island (that is magnetic, so any ship coming close literally falls apart because everything that is made of metal – like nails – is attracted to the magnetic island) that is surmounted by a bronze horseman statue, but how the bronze horseman statue is toppled in the story doesn’t fit at all into its position in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.

What to do, what to do?

Some advised me to simply invent stories, but I seem to have taken some sort of internal oath after completing my doctoral degree, that wouldn’t allow me to flaunt veracity in this way, so with the time I had, I did my own rough musical thematic analysis of each of the movements of Scheherazade, and after reading through the seven Sinbad stories, three Kalendar Prince stories, and the Ibraham and Jamilah story, began to piece together elements of these official stories from The Arabian Nights in a way that would fit the musical themes that Rimsky-Korsakov used. That pretty much took care of movements 1-3.

In doing the musical thematic analysis for movement 4 it was pretty clear which section of music portrayed the Festival at Baghdad, which section of music portrayed being back at sea again (presumably on Sinbad’s ship, since, after all, there were 7 stories about him being at sea), and when the ship crashed on the cliffs. One of the most challenging elements of Rimsky’s music depicting the Festival is that he quotes themes from all the previous movements, chockablock, almost tripping over each other. But because of this I simply devise a storyline where the Kalendar Prince and Prince Ibraham and Princess Jamilah with all of their foes in pursuit, were weaving their way through the cacophony of an actual festival (and bazaar) in Baghdad, ultimately all seeking refuge on Sinbad’s ship, where they ride out a huge storm and crash on an island – all surviving, of course – and thus open themselves to experience new lives in a new and exotic location. (It actually sounds like an appropriately Scheherazade-esque cliffhanger.)

At this point I’m still working to turn all of these bits and pieces into a cohesive whole. I’m grateful to have the services of my ever-supportive, long-suffering husband Jim, as editor and objective reader for making this happen. Speaking of Jim, he has for many years now been the unofficial “Voice of EMSO,” providing narrations of all sorts for concerts over the years. We planned for him to be the storyteller for this program as well. However a couple weeks ago I was having dinner with a wonderful group of woman friends, some of whom are actually classical music hosts for Minnesota Public Radio. As we went around the table updating each other on our current activities, I spoke about our upcoming Scheherazade program. One of them spoke up, saying “Why haven’t you asked us? We get requests for that all the time!” Honestly it never occurred to me to ask the venerable MPR to help out with a community orchestra concert, but here they were, asking to be asked! Just like that, my friend and wonderful MPR host Valerie Kahler will be our storyteller for our concert on May 17th. (Jim graciously – and possibly gratefully – stepped aside.)

Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor

Please join us!

The East Metro Symphony Orchestra presents
Scheherazade: Enchanting Stories from The Arabian Nights
A Family Concert
Sunday, May 17, 2015 at 2:00 p.m.
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
2499 Helen Street
North St. Paul

Tickets: $10/adults, $6/seniors, FREE for children 18 years and younger
Available at the door, or on the EMSO website.