Scheherazade - January 27

Written by Ken Meltzer



Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Opus 33a (1945)

Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, England, on November 22, 1913, and died in Aldeburgh, England, on December 4, 1976.  The first performance of the opera, Peter Grimes, took place at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, England, on June 7, 1945, Reginald Goodall, conducting. 

Approximate performance time is sixteen minutes.

In 1942, Benjamin Britten attended a performance of his Sinfonia da Requiem by Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  At Koussevitsky’s suggestion, and with the support of the Koussevitsky Music Foundation, Britten began work on a full-scale opera.

While in Hollywood, Britten read an article about the life and poetry of George Crabbe.  Britten was immediately drawn to Crabbe’s 1810 poem The Borough, with its vivid descriptions of life in the seaside town of Aldeburgh.  One of the characters in The Borough is the fisherman Peter Grimes.  In Crabbe’s poem, Grimes is in many ways a malignant character, with a mind “untouched by pity, unstung by remorse, and uncorrected by shame.”

Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater modified Peter Grimes’s character into a greatly disturbed, but in many ways misunderstood outsider.  Crabbe’s Grimes flaunts society’s conventions at every turn.  But in Britten’s opera, the title character’s conflicting desires for independence and acceptance by society lead to his ruin.

The story of Grimes’s downfall is told against the backdrop of the ever-present and omnipotent sea.  As Britten explained:

For most of my life, I have lived closely in touch with the sea.  My parents’ house in Lowestoft directly faced the sea, and my life as a child was colored by the fierce storms that sometimes drove ships on our coast and ate away whole stretches of neighboring cliffs.  In writing Peter Grimes, I wanted to express my awareness of the perpetual struggle of men and women whose livelihood depends upon the sea—difficult though it is to treat such a universal subject in theatrical form.

Indeed, while the sea is the basis of Grimes’s livelihood, it ultimately proves to be the instrument of his death.

In Peter Grimes, Britten created one of opera’s most haunting and unforgettable characters.  The orchestra too plays a crucial dramatic role, perhaps most notably in the Interludes that bridge scenes of various Acts, and vividly depict the mysterious, powerful, and ever-changing sea.  The Sea Interludes have also established a regular presence in the concert hall.

The Four Sea Interludes are played without pause.

I. Dawn. Lento e tranquillo

II. Sunday Morning. Allegro spiritoso

III. Moonlight. Andante comodo e rubato

IV. Storm. Presto con fuoco



Fantasia para un gentilhombre (1954)

Joaquín Rodrigo was born in Sagunto, Spain, on November 22, 1901, and died in Madrid, Spain, on July 6, 1999.  The first performance of the Fantasia para un gentilhombre took place at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, California, on March 5, 1958, with Andres Segovia, soloist, and the San Francisco Symphony, Enrique Jordá conducting. 

Approximate performance time is twenty-two minutes.

Joaquín Rodrigo composed his work for solo guitar and orchestra, Fantasia para un gentilhombre (Fantasia for a Gentleman) at the request of the legendary Spanish guitarist, Andrés Segovia (1893-1987).  Segovia was the soloist in the Fantasia’s world premiere, which took place in San Francisco on March 5, 1958.  Enrique Jordá conducted the San Francisco Symphony.

The “Gentleman” reference in the work’s title is two-fold.  The first gentleman is the Spanish Baroque guitarist, Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710), whose music provides the thematic basis for the Fantasia.  The composer also dubs Segovia “the ‘gentilhombre’ of the Spanish guitar, a noblemen in his own right among Spanish guitarists and musicians.”  Segovia dedicated the Fantasia both to Sanz and Segovia.

The quoted descriptions below of the various movements are by the composer.

I. Villano y Ricercare—“The Villano which opens the work is developed monothematically within a melodic framework appropriate to the period.  Following this…is a Ricercare in which I have worked out the fugue which Gaspar Sanz had only sketched.”

II. Españoleta y Fanfare de la Cabellería de Nápoles—“La Españoleta is interrupted by a curious episode which serves as a trio, or middle part…(Bugle Calls of the Naples Cavalry) obviously makes reference to the time when that kingdom was in close contact with Spain (Because of this contact, the Siciliana of Italy and the Españoletta are first cousins.)”

III. Danza de las hachas—“The Danza de las hachas (Hatchet Dance), with its great rhythmic animation, is like a duel between the guitar and orchestra.”

IV. Canario—“The work ends with a Canario, a popular folk dance full of tense gayety.”

Sharon Isbin, guitar soloist

Acclaimed for her extraordinary lyricism, technique and versatility, multiple GRAMMY Award winner Sharon Isbin has been hailed as “the pre-eminent guitarist of our time”. She is the winner of Guitar Player magazine’s “Best Classical Guitarist” award, and the Toronto and Madrid Queen Sofia competitions, and was the first guitarist ever to win the Munich Competition. She has appeared as soloist with over 170 orchestras and has given sold-out performances in the world’s finest halls, including New York’s Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls, Boston’s Symphony Hall, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, London’s Barbican and Wigmore Halls, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Paris’ Châtelet, Vienna’s Musikverein, Munich’s Herkulessaal, Madrid’s Teatro Real and many others. She has served as Artistic Director/Soloist of festivals she created for Carnegie Hall, the Ordway Music Theatre (St. Paul), New York’s 92nd Street Y, and the acclaimed national radio series Guitarjam. A frequent guest on NPR’s All Things Considered and Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, she has been profiled on television throughout the world, including CBS Sunday Morning and A&E. She was a featured guest on Showtime Television’s hit series The L Word, and a soloist on the GRAMMY nominated soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning The Departed. On September 11, 2002, Ms. Isbin performed at Ground Zero for the internationally televised memorial. Among other career highlights, she performed in concert at the White House for President and Mrs. Obama in November 2009, and was the only classical artist to perform in the 2010 GRAMMY Awards. She has been profiled in periodicals from People to ElleThe Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as appearing on the covers of over 45 magazines. Her 2015 national television performances on PBS include the Billy Joel Gershwin PrizeTavis Smiley, and American Public Television’s presentation of the acclaimed one-hour documentary on her life and work produced by Susan Dangel titled Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, seen by millions on nearly 200 PBS stations across the US, and the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Television Broadcast Award. The film was released with bonus performances on DVD/Blu-ray by Video Artists International. Watch the trailer

Rimsky Korsakov

Rimsky Korsakov

Scheherazade, Opus 35 (1888)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in Tikhvin, Russia, on March 18, 1844, and died in Lyubensk, Russia, on June 21, 1908.  The first performance of Scheherazade took place in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 3, 1888, with the composer conducting. 

Approximate performance time is forty-two minutes.

The fantastic collection of tales known as The Arabian Nights, or A Thousand and One Nights, has captivated readers for centuries.  The ancient stories, mostly of Arabic, Indian, or Persian origin, were first presented to European readers in an early 18th-century French translation by Antoine Galland.  In the late 19th century, British explorer Sir Francis Richard Burton created a popular English-language version.  To this day, the tales of Aladdin, Sinbad, and Ali Baba continue to weave their magical spell.

Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov created his Scheherazade, Symphonic Suite after “A Thousand and One Nights,” in the summer of 1888.  During that same period, Rimsky-Korsakov also completed his brilliant Russian Easter Overture, Opus 36.  The composer proudly acknowledged: “my orchestration had achieved a considerable degree of virtuosity and bright sonority.”  The composer led the first performance of Scheherazade in St. Petersburg on November 3, 1888.

Several musical themes recur throughout the work’s four movements.  However, Rimsky-Korsakov emphatically cautioned:

In vain do people seek in my suite leading motives linked unbrokenly with ever the same poetic ideas and conceptions.  On the contrary, in the majority of cases, all these seeming leitmotives are nothing but purely musical material or the given motives for symphonic development.  These given motives thread and spread over all the movements of the suite, alternating and intertwining each with the other.  Appearing as they do each time under different illumination, depicting each time different traits and expressing different moods, the self-same motives and themes correspond each time to different images, actions and pictures.

Nevertheless, the composer did acknowledge that the famous recurring violin solo, which makes its initial appearance at the beginning of the first movement, is symbolic of the heroine Scheherazade, “telling her wondrous tales to the stern sultan.”

As a preface to his score, Rimsky-Korsakov provided the following program for Scheherazade:

The Sultan Schahriar, convinced of the perfidy and faithlessness of women, vowed to execute each of his wives after the first night.  But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her own life by interesting him in the tales she told him through 1001 nights.  Impelled by curiosity, the Sultan continually put off her execution, and at last entirely abandoned his sanguinary resolve.  Many marvels did Scheherazade relate to him, citing the verses of poets and the words of songs, weaving tale into tale and story into story.

Throughout the work, a solo violin represents Scheherazade bewitching the Sultan with her intoxicating tales.  The work is in four movements, each with a descriptive title.

I. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship

II. The Story of the Kalendar Prince

III. The Young Prince and the Young Princess

IV. The Festival of Baghdad—The Sea—The Ship Goes to Pieces Against a Rock Surmounted by a Bronze Warrior—Fest in Baghdad