Someone asked if I would answer a musical question, and of course, music being one of my favorite subjects, I am most happy to oblige.
The question concerns the symphony I posted earlier this week by Rimsky-Korsalov titled "Scheherazade." The music is so captivating that the questioner mused that there must be a story behind it.
Indeed, there is. In fact, the symphony itself IS a story depicted by music. To me, the story is most fascinating, and it perhaps explains at least part of the reason people love the piece so much. Something resonates with the listener that draws him into the sound and harmony.
Rimsky-Korsalov was a Russian composer who wrote in the Romantic period of the 1800s. Two central features of that era are depicted by Scheherazade, one, the composer is interested in lush orchestrations, captivating melodies, and emotionally marinated harmonies, all of which can be found in the work, and two, he was keenly interested in what was known at the time as "the East," or the "Orient," which today we know as the Arab world. Russians at the time, pre-Bolshevik, were known for their fascination with the Arab culture, which to them was full of intrigue, danger, and romance.
And here is where Scheherazade comes in. Rimsky-Korsalov wished to write a symphony that would set to music a story based upon The Arabian Nights. According to the story, an Arab Sultan had come to the conclusion that all women were wicked and unfaithful, and thus, he decided to kill all of his wives. Scheherazade was one of the wives whose fate rested in the hands of her Sultan lord. The symphony opens with the dark, deep bass notes that are the theme of the stern Sultan. We are then introduced to the musical theme of the wife, which is portrayed by a sultry, intriguing, and sensual violin solo, backed up by the harp.
Scheherazade had a plan to save her own life. She would captivate the Sultan's curiosity and attention by telling him fantastic tales of sea voyages, danger, intrigue, romance, mystery, excitement, fear, and love, all as depicted in the story The Arabian Nights.
Her plan worked, at least temporarily. As long as Scheherazade could keep the Sultan captivated by her fantastic tales, he would put off killing her. And that led to the subtitle of The Arabian Nights, "One Thousand and One Nights," meaning that Scheherazade kept her lord's murderous rampage at bay by entertaining him with fascinating tales for a thousand and one nights.
But on the final night of this protracted encounter, an internal war ensues within the mind and heart of the Sultan, which is portrayed by the intensity of the music of the fourth and final movement of the piece. He is torn by what he swore to do and what his heart tells him to do. Finally, there is a great breakthrough as Scheherazade wins him over and melts his heart. Not only does he allow her to live but he goes further to rescind his vow to kill his wives. It is at that point, at the end of the piece, that we find a stunning climax, the pounding throbbing music depicting the Sultan's conversion to a compassionate mindset, and finally the movement into the soothing, peaceful coda at the end where the music takes us to the easing of Scheherazade's mind where she can now fall into a deep and peaceful sleep, assured that she had finally won over the hardened heart of an Arab Sultan who was bent on murder.
Is this the reason Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is seen in the video of the piece with tears at the point that the Sultan is overwhelmed by the internal conflict and finally gives in to his heart to the point that he decides to allow all of his wives to live? We don't know for sure. But we do know that the fourth movement of the piece is one of the most moving musical climaxes in the history of serious symphonic music. And let's be honest about it. Nobody, no conductor, no orchestra ever came close to captivating the sheer emotion of this piece outside of Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra...not to mention that they played the piece to perfection, which is rare.
Perhaps Ormandy was overwhelmed by the fact that he was able to produce the sound he wanted to this degree of utter perfection. But I like to think that he was moved by more than just the music. As a musical genius and child prodigy, Ormandy was well aware of the story behind the music. The story, you see, becomes part of that music if one is aware of it. Perhaps it was that as much as the music that moved him. And of course, the music perfectly captures the climax of the story.
As one person wrote on YouTube, "The conductor is so brilliantly passionate that just watching him alone makes this worth favoriting."
So, that is my take on this wonderful symphony, and yes, it is one of my very favorite pieces of music. If you missed it earlier, here is the YouTube link to Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing the fourth and final movement.