The sea – what a promise! Far away countries. Exotic spices. Incredible wealth. Danger, adventures, challenges. People wearing different attire and practicing a different religion, speaking languages we do not understand. The sea! What a temptation! I am on board of a dhow and I am sailing across the Persian Gulf, heading for the Street of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean. I am an adventurer traveling with Sindbad the Seafearer.
The opening bars of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem “Sheherazade” express the longing for adventure, the excitement of a sea voyage in a small ship, the temptation of the unknown. The first part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece called “The Sea and Sindbad’s Ship” are really magic and set free all those emotions. I am in love with sailing ships, and the music makes my imagination travel freely as a passenger on Sindbad’s ship. Are you coming along? You should, since we have the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Herbert von Karajan, who recorded the piece, on board. Excellent travel companions!
Naval strategy and music theory
When Rimsky-Korsakov was very young, he never intended to become a musician or a composer. He wanted to become a sailor, just like his elder brother. True, he had some piano training – both parents were amateur pianists – and played the inevitable scales, but he was much more fascinated by adventure novels, travel reports and books about astronomy. In 1857, in the best aristocratic fashion, he emulated his brother and started his training at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. The navy! Traveling to foreign countries. Reliving the adventures he had read about.
But life is full of unexpected turns. While he studied navigation, physics, sailing manoeuvres, steam engines and naval strategy, he attended with friends operas and concerts in St. Petersburg and discovered the music of Gaetano Donizetti, Carl Maria von Weber and Ludwig van Beethoven. He became really excited when he saw Mikhail Glinka’s opera “A Life for the Czar”. He sat down and learned everything he could about music theory, the roots of Russian music and became familiar with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Robert Schumann. He composed a few now forgotten melodies. And then he met the composer Mily Balakirev, who will later become the nucleus of the “Mighty Five“, a group of Russian composers that would try to develop a distinct Russian music style.
Balakirev challenged him to compose a symphony. Rimsky-Korsakov, the musical dilettante, was 18 years old and getting ready to sail out of St. Petersburg with the Czar’s navy. Three years later, he returned and the symphony was ready. It had its premiere in 1865 conducted by Balakirev and was the defining moment of the “Mighty Five”. What an adventure! What a triumph! While pursuing his naval career, Rimsky-Korsakov now started to compose at a frenetic speed and between 1887 and 1888, he wrote Op. 35: “Sheherazade”.
The Middle-East and “The Tales of 1001 Nights” had captivated the composer’s imagination and he picked certain episodes of the tales collection that he saw most suited to be set to music: Sindbad’s Travel as the first part, “The Story of the Calendar Prince” as the second part, furthermore “The Young Prince and the Young Princess” and “The Festival at Baghdad”. Queen Sheherazade, the storyteller telling her husband, King Shahryar, one story after the other to avoid being beheaded like her predecessors, must have had a lasting impression on the young man’s mind. The symphonic piece itself is a long, sweet dream, dramatic at moments, poetic at other, a supreme achievement!
And now: Anchors aweigh!
© Charles Thibo