I have sailed through the Street of Hormuz with Sindbad in an earlier post, today I will cross the Iraqi desert and dream of the beautiful palaces of Palmyra recently vandalized by extremists supposedly inspired by Islam. On the road then with Antar ibn Shaddad, an Arab pre-islamic poet and warrior (525-615 AC) of the tribe of the Beni ‘Abs. His history has been narrated by the 19th century fantasy writer Osip Senkovsky, which in turn has been set to music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1867/68 in his Symphony No. 2, Op. 9.
Senkovsky’s tale has several episodes, closely followed by Rimsky-Korsakov: It begins with Antar roaming in despair in the desert. He sees a gazelle and tries to hunt it, but a giant bird has set its eyes on the gazelle too. He fights the bird successfully, but he is exhausted and falls asleep. He dreams of a palace where he is attended by female slaves and realizes that the gazelle was none other than the Gul Nazar, Queen of Palmyra. In gratitude the Gul promises him the three great joys of life and these are celebrated in the last three movements of Antar – the Joy of Revenge, the Joy of Power and the Joy of Love. The real Antar ibn Shaddad’s end was less glorious: He was killed by a poisoned arrow shot by a rival he had blinded in a battle opposing two clans.
In his memoirs, the composer writes that the piece actually is closer to a symphonic poem than a symphony. It follows a clear narrative structure, with a specific theme for Antar, repeated and variated in the four movements. Rimsky-Korsakov followed here the example of the French composer Hector Berlioz and his works “Symphonie Fantastique” and “Harold en Italie”. While the piece follows the classical symphonic structure of four movements, there is no true development of the thematic material as it would be expected in a symphony.
Be that as it may be, the piece’s formal simplicity does not work to its disadvantage, on the contrary, Antar’s theme is easy to identify and holds the composition together; it is a lovely and entertaining piece, a fusion of Russian melodies and tunes from authentic Arabic sources, published in the French book “Chansons algériennes, mauresques et kabyles” brought back from Paris to the circle of the Mighty Five* by Alexander Borodin.
And yes, I grant you that the Maghreb culture differs from the culture of the Sham territory, Antar’s battlefield, but let’s leave Rimsky-Korsakov the free choice of his inspiration. After all he did not intend to put a scientific study of Arab culture to music. The tale of Antar ibn Shaddad sprung from fantasy and changed over time like Sheherazade’s tales. Senkovsky wrote down his own version and Rimsky-Korsakov added his own fantasies to it. He was a sailor, and his round-the world trip on a Russian Navy ship had left a deep impression on him. The longing for far-away, exotic places would never leave him and permeate several of his works.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphony No. 2 has been recorded by the Göteborg Symfoniker.