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Rhiannon Schmitt

Once Upon A Time There Was a Young Violinist and a Wonderful Piece of Symphonic Music…

October 25, 2007 at 6:14 AM

A Violin Teacher Witnesses Her Former Young Student Tackling Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Provides Interesting History on the Piece

I began teaching Rory Cleveland violin when I first moved to my small town in 1999. Rory was my first student here and an enthusiastic and tomboyish 6-year-old who loved to play the fast notes and fiddle tunes. She grew over the next several years in lessons into a dedicated “practicer,” a seasoned performer and confident musician.

Rory is now in her second year as Concertmaster of the local community/school district orchestra and is working at attaining her classical conservatory levels with a new teacher. At only fourteen years of age this former fiddler’s been handed a substantial challenge: to play violin with the Okanagan Symphony in an upcoming concert featuring, among other works, “Scheherazade” by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov.

But before we get into the piece, you need to know a little background on the story it was inspired by. The story of “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” as told by me, goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a Shahryar, or Sultan, who was horribly betrayed by his wife. This hurt and angered him so much that every day after that he married a virgin and sent yesterday's wife to be done-in. Okay, not a great start to a story, but it does get better.

The Sultan had done this for some time to countless women when he learned his vizier, a sort-of Arabian personal assistant, had a daughter of marrying age: the beautiful Scheherazade. (pronounced “shuh-hair-uh-zod”)

Though her father, naturally, protested her casually agreeing to spend the evening with the Sultan, Schherazade was no dummy. She had studied the books and legends of preceding Kings and their history. She knew poetry and song and could recite anything by heart. And she was incredibly cunning, yet so refined and well-mannered few knew of her cunning, especially the brutish Sultan.

On what would have been her final night alive Scheherazade begged permission to bid farewell to her little sister, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story during the long night.

The Sultan listened with childlike awe to Scheherazade's story and asked for another, but Scheherazade yawned at the rising sun and said there was no time. Which was too bad, because the next story was even better!

This trick continued another one thousand and one nights and three sons later! (They must have done more than tell stories in those hot, Arabian nights). In those years the Sultan had been more than merely entertained by tales of heroism and passion: He was educated in morality, kindness and love. He then took Scheherazade to be his queen and they lived happily ever after!

You can see that writing music to convey this passionate and colourful story of enourmous scope would be no small task. But Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s work lives up to the legend and has become a legend in itself.

Scheherazade, Op. 35, is a symphonic suite composed by Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. Based on “The Book of One Thousand and One Nights,” the work is scored for full symphony orchestra including strings, winds, percussion and harp. This is no small request of your typical orchestra. The piece, therefore, is not performed as often as we would like due to the demands it places on staffing an orchestra.

Plus, the piece is no Mozart serenade. With a whopping performance length of around 45 minutes the work is a formidable challenge to the musicians who must battle with frequent time and key changes as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s nutty-fast rhythms and articulations.

The suite consists of four equally stunning and difficult movements with the titles “I. The Sea and Sinbad's Ship,” “II. The Kalendar Prince,” “III. The Young Prince and The Young Princess” and “IV. Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman.”

Okay, so it sounds intimidating. You can’t expect a formidable Russian compostion to have movement titles like, “Allegretto Minuetto.” But the music itself is not intimidating but is rather welcoming and, I am fighting my instinct to avoid the word, “magical.” It is magical.

The piece tells a story with musical notes rather than spoken or written word. But this is because Scheherazade was composed as programme music, or musical story-telling. Unlike opera or oratorio, where lyrics and, in the case of opera, props and costumes are used to tell the story, programme music relies completely on the melody and harmony to convey story and symbolism.

Some famous programme music pieces include Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” which take the listener on a seasonal tour of rustic Italy and Saint Saen’s “Carnival of the Animals,” a whimsical jaunt composed for his young music students.

Still don’t understand programme music? Just think of a loud cymbal crash preceded by a lightening fast minor scale played by agitated strings to denote a musical storm and you get the idea.

The musical theme opening the first movement represents the domineering Sultan played by loud, booming brass in unision. But soon we hear a striking and poignant theme played by violin and harp that reappears in each movement: the theme of the storyteller herself, Scheherazade.

What makes Scheherazade brilliant is that the piece is a story telling a story. In this musical story we hear the storyteller, Scheherazade, “speaking” then her story continues as the piece moves on. In the swirls of notes we hear what could have been a thousand different stories of conflict, passion, love and heroism.

The work is particularly meaningful to me as the first time I remember having heard any of it was the night my grandmother passed away. It was days after my twelfth birthday and a close friend wanted to console me with a student recital where she was playing flute. I sat and listened in awe to a student clarinet duo play a simplified version of the theme to “The Young Prince and the Young Princess.”

My eyes welled up with tears, not for the loss of my grandma, but for the absolute stunning beauty in the graceful melody: it touched my heart. The music seemed to heal my pain and made what would have been a tragic night a peaceful one. I saved up babysitting money and bought a cassette tape recording of the piece and was hooked for life. A few months later I started playing violin and consider Scheherazade to be one of my inspirations for playing this lovely instrument.

I always loved and listened to Scheherazade and during my teen years I vowed I would listen to the entire work on my wedding night. Grudgingly my husband went along with my girlie request and has since taken to whistling bits of it from time to time. It’s catchy stuff!

So it is with great anticipation that I talk to my former student about her experiences learning the piece for performance. Rory, like most others, had also heard Scheherazade in segments before but never knew the title. She does recall that when she heard it she knew it was something she hoped she would perform someday and that time has come.

Rory is looking forward to playing this piece and especially playing with a symphony orchestra. She is anticipates hearing “the full sound of a real well put-together orchestra with the leadership of professional violinists.”

She went on to say, “I like all the movements because, though they are all different, they all have different variations of the theme in them. I think my favorite movement is the fourth one because I feel that it’s the most exciting and that it‘s moving forward.”

When asked if other children would enjoy the piece she quipped, “It depends on the kid but if children are gonna be able to sit through any music with out falling asleep it would be the Scheherazade because it is interesting and there is always a melody ‘talking.’”

Too true. The piece is on the long side, even for an adult listener, but knowing the storyline makes every moment of music a story to imagine. Parents of young listeners can whisper a narrative to make the piece more enjoyable and to stimulate imaginations.

Rory agrees that children, particularly musicians, will find it inspiring to witness other young people performing this piece.

“To see kids play such an amzing full difficult piece is inspiring ‘cause it kinda shows that they can reach any level (of musicianship) if they practice,” she said.

Which leads to the dedication Rory has had to show to keep up with the rest of the orchcestra, let alone the piece!

“It is a responsibility to say that you are going to play it cause you have to commit to it 100%,” she said. “You cant just say ‘I will practice once a week.’ I have to practise everyday. It has to look perfect and sound perfect when you perform it or else you embarrass yourself and let down the whole orchestra. You can tell when someone isn’t doing their part!”

Rory enjoys rehearsals as she always feels like she has “accomplished something at the end,” but it is also a tough proposition to make the many rehearsals. “I’m very tired ‘cause it is a 2 hour drive (each way) for us. I have to eat in the car and do my homework in the car until I get carsick. I get home at 11:00 pm.”

Rory finished with music to my violin teacher ears: “Practice-wise all I have to say is two words: metronome and recording. I think i finally realized the importance of using a metronome. You also need to listen to recording of thesong ‘cause you get a sense of the song and what is going on in the orchestra the whole time so you understand your part better.”

So, Rory, my dear, we look forward to enjoying your and the orchestra’s efforts in the upcoming concerts! Thanks for your dedication to the music and for recreating a piece which means so much to your first teacher and fellow violinist!


FAIRY TALES & FABLES with the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra (British Columbia, Canada)

"Come along for the ride as we “Chase the Sun” in some cool road music for orchestra by T.Patrick Carrabre. Delight in Prokofiev’s beloved classic “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by Global TV’s Tony Parsons. We close with Rimsky Korsakov’s orchestral blockbuster “Scheherazade.""

November 17th, 8:00 pm: Kelowna Community Theatre. Tickets 250.860.147

November 18th, 7:00 pm: Vernon Performing Arts. Tickets 250.549.7469.

From Roy Sonne
Posted on October 25, 2007 at 7:59 PM
Bravo, Rhiannon! You are a passionate teacher and a gifted reporter and storyteller. And a generous human being, living out and dramatizing Rory's triumphs even after she has moved on to another teacher.

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