This blog post will present four famous programmatic works to you!
A young musician of morbid sensitivity and ardent imagination poisons himself with opium in a moment of despair caused by frustrated love. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions, in which his experiences, feelings and memories are translated in his feverish brain into musical thoughts and images. His beloved becomes for him a melody and like an idée fixe which he meets and hears everywhere.
He remembers first the uneasiness of spirit, the indefinable passion, the melancholy, the aimless joys he felt even before seeing his beloved; then the explosive love she suddenly inspired in him, his delirious anguish, his fits of jealous fury, his returns of tenderness, his religious consolations.
He meets again his beloved in a ball during a glittering fête.
Scene in the countryside
One summer evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds dialoguing with their ‘Ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the light wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring; but she reappears, he feels a pang of anguish, and painful thoughts disturb him: what if she betrayed him… One of the shepherds resumes his simple melody, the other one no longer answers. The sun sets… distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence…
March to the scaffold
He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned to death and led to execution. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end, the idée fixe reappears for a moment like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow.
Dream of a witches’ sabbath
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance-tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roars of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae.
Part 1 - 00:00
Part 2- 13:40
Part 3- 20:30
Part 4- 37:30
Part 5- 42:30
For younger listeners, there's a wonderful interactive computer game available here that will take them through the story.
The basic premise of the story is that the sultan enraged by the adultery of his wife, had her executed. He then goes through several new wives - marrying them and then executing them the next day so they never have a chance to betray him. Finally, he marries the beautiful Scheherazade, who comes up with an ingenious plan to save her own life. She tells him fantastic tales which always end with a cliffhanger. Wanting to hear the rest of the story, the Sultan spares her until the next night. She keeps this up for years, until finally the sultan falls in love with her and they have a long and happy life together.
This piece begins with a stern, authoritative theme played by the low strings and the brass. This represents the harsh, serious sultan who has been executing his wives. Throughout the work, you hear a beautiful violin solo that comes back again and again. This represents Scheherazade telling the story. The four movements of the work represent different stories that she tells the Sultan.
Here is the breakdown of the movements as described by Marin Alsop, the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. See the full text or listen to the audio of her interview with NPR here.
Scheherazade weaves her tales seamlessly, starting with "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship." We hear the waves undulating (audio), retreating and growing in intensity. Every modulation represents an unexpected turn in the story, and I try to maximize the surprise of these twists. My goal is to reflect Scheherazade's own storytelling: to capture the imagination and leave the listener in a constant state of disequilibrium. For me, it's important not to have too many obvious arrival points, but rather to steer towards a goal and then veer away from it like the music and the story both do.
The second movement opens with Scheherazade's voice again, but each time, it's more elaborate and more ornamented. This movement is called "The Tale of the Kalender Prince," and Rimsky-Korsakov uses exotic,Middle Eastern-sounding melodic solos (audio) for the woodwind instruments. Here, I want to exaggerate the foreignness of the sounds. I ask the solo players to take more time, play as though they are improvising.
The main love story in Scheherazade is found in the third movement, called "The Young Prince and the Young Princess." The trick here for me is not to overdo the sentimentality and detract from the innocence of this beautiful story. I try to keep the sound simple yet intimate and never overwrought. That way, when the final statement (audio) arrives, complete with cymbal crash, there's room to really go over the top.
Scheherazade shows her true genius in the final movement, "The Festival at Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck on a Rock; Conclusion." The music begins with an impatient Sultan, his theme hurriedly coaxing Scheherazade to finish the story. He can barely contain himself by this point, in his excitement to hear what happens next. Each morning, when the executioner has arrived at his door, the Sultan has sent him away, saying "Come back tomorrow," so that Scheherazade can continue her tale.
She continues to spin her tales of wonder while gradually bringing in every theme from the previous movements, deftly tying everything together. By this time, the Sultan has forgotten to tell the executioner to return the next day. We hear his low voice at the end, finally subdued and tamed.