The full title of Rimsky-Korsakov's (1844-1908) composition is Sheherezade. Symphonic Suite for Orchestra after “The Thousand and One Nights.” The Arab collection of stories that formed the programme for the work, evolved between the early 9th and late 15th centuries, during which time it also incorporated Indus, Persian and Egyptian tales. The Thousand and One Nights became a global phenomenon, as it were, after it was translated into French in the beginning of the 18th century. The basic story is so well known that it almost needs no introduction: evil Sultan Shahrya is so infuriated by the faithlessness of women that he swears to murder each of his wives following their wedding night. Sherezade is the only one to retain her head after she succeeds in engaging her husband's attention for one thousand and one nights with her artful telling of tales.
From this immense treasury, Rimsky-Korsakov selected four stories for his symphonic suite. The first is about the nautical hero Sinbad, the second the jokes of Prince Kalender, the third the love of the young princess and the prince, while the fourth portrays the festive commotion of Baghdad and a ship that is smashed to pieces after colliding with the rider of iron. Rimsky originally furnished each movement with titles that hinted as the original tales but he later erased them so as not to influence the imagination of the listener. More interesting still is that Rimsky-Korsakov initially seriously contemplated appending generic titles to each movement, thus Prelude, Ballada, Adagio and Finale. Perhaps this might have created an even greater distraction from the imaginative content of the music.
The suite was penned in 1888 and the composer dedicated it to the critic and writer Vladimir Stasov, who was twenty years his senior. Stasov played an important role in the development of Russian music through his support of the “Mighty Handful” – the nickname for the five composers Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov himself. He also wrote the biographies of several members of the group, including Rimsky's.
The score calls for a large, romantic orchestra, with woodwinds and brass, several percussion instruments, harp and full strings. Despite the weight of the orchestra, the solo violin plays a determining role, personifying the titular Sheherezade. The other characters of the tales are embodied by characteristic instruments and instrumental groups: the portrait of Sultan Shahrya is primarily painted with bass trombones and tubas. Sinbad's ship tosses upon the harmonically destructive waves of the cellos, Prince Kalender is introduced by the bassoon while the lovers are symbolised by the two violin sections.
The suite begins with the presentation of the two characters in the interlinking story. First we hear the frightening Sultan in the bottom register of the orchestra. This is the voice of revenge, as embodied by melody in unison without harmony and accompaniment. This alternates with the woodwind, harp and solo violin melody, expressing the eloquence with which Sheherezade weaves her stories.