Nothing says ‘why yes, I am a doctoral student’ like a bit of a classical music. After all, what better way is there to signal your erudition to the general public than describing a conductor’s choice of musical dynamics or the flourishes of an upstart violin soloist as judicious?
Following last term’s outings to the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Brighton Dome, we will be attending once again this February. Tickets are just £5! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your place.
The Philharmonic’s Programme
The 19th century pieces the make up February’s programme are unified both by their Romantic provenance and the centrality of narrative. In the first instance this is inherent to the medium — the concert will open with the overture from Hector Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedicte, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. I want to focus here on the last piece of the concert, a musical narrative based on a story-of-stories.
Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade was written after a creative hiatus that saw the composer focus on editing the works of his late peers — Mussorgsky and Borodin among them — and his career as an academic at the St Petersburg conservatory. Romantic nationalism in his earlier work manifested through musical interpolations of ceremonial dances (khorovod) and seasonal hymns to agrarian deities.
Scheherazade, on the other hand, draws thematically on Middle Eastern folklore through One Thousand and One Nights. Rimsky-Korsakov did not intend for the pieces’ four movements to correspond to any tales in particular, instead reiterating the frame narrative in the score’s preface:
The Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the duplicity and infidelity of all women, vowed to slay each of his wives after the first night. The Sultana Scheherazade, however, saved her life by the expedient recounting to the Sultan a succession of tales over a period of 1,001 nights. Overcome by curiosity, the monarch postponed the execution of his wife from day to day, and ended by renouncing his sanguinary resolution altogether.
The 45 minute piece in four movements is certainly romantic. Shahriar and Scheherazade have distinct leitmotifs within the first sixty seconds; the sultan gets a dark theme with booming lower brass while the storyteller is represented by a violin with light harp accompaniment.
There are musical representations of maritime adventures, a love story, and the usual stock of fantasy tropes — but is it nationalistic? Nationalism is circumscribed and informed by what is not revered, and in this way what we hear is a set of exotic fragments rather than a veritable representation of Middle Eastern music.
In his memoirs, Rimsky Korsakov explains further:
All I had desired was that the listener, 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 another.
This entirely unspecific ‘Oriental’ character exemplifies how ‘‘foreign’ music was portrayed in the classical canon, whether the composers hail from France or Russia. By emphasizing the most obvious musical differences, this kind of work is — in academic terms — ‘heightening, rather than bridging, the dichotomous gap between Self and Other’. The political context is also telling: Russia was expanding into ‘the Orient’ around this time, having occupied modern day Uzbekistan in 1868. Borodin’s Prince Igor, which Rimsky Korsakov completed in the same year he wrote Scheherazade after the former’s death, has been called ‘a racially justified endorsement of Russia’s militaristic advancement to the east.’
A similar vagueness can be seen in impressions of Turkish and Hungarian music in the eighteenth century, perhaps because those categories were received only through military bands and ‘Gypsy’ music. The end of the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D Major, ‘Rondo a l’Ongarese’ (also known as the Gypsy Rondo) mirrors the theme from the final movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, ‘Rondo Alla Turca’ (1783). A common operatic trope involves wordless melodies (vocalise) as an Oriental expression of emotional triumph over rationality, as seen in The Bell Song from Leo Delibes’ Lakme. These foreign themes were effectively exotic signifiers meant to be exchanged.
Rimsky Korsakov’s musical impressions of the Arab world may more closely resemble Russian music than anything else, but Scheherazade has endured as a preeminent example of musical storytelling and promises to make for a memorable evening with one of the world’s finest orchestras. We look forward to hearing from you (and the orchestra).