Classics 5: Scheherazade
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Chorale “Komm süsser Tod”, BWV 478, Orch. Leopold Stokowski

In the German Lutheran Church, the chorale (or hymn) was sung by the whole congregation rather than by the choir, as would have been the case in the Roman Catholic service. Martin Luther himself inaugurated this tradition by writing both words and music for hundreds of chorales. These simple melodies in strophic in form, in the vernacular were usually under 20 measures and constituted the source of congregational singing in many Christian denominations. The melodies were used over and over again by different composers for different texts or with a single text in different harmonic realization.

Komm, süsser Tod” is one of over 60 chorales that Bach, then Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, provided for the huge 1736 collection Musicalisches Gesang-Buch von Georg Schmelli for use in the city. This practical volume of sacred songs was published in Leipzig by Bernhard Christian Breitkopf, founder of the famous music publishing house that still bears his name. Most of Bach’s contributions were old and famous Lutheran tunes, to which he had only to add bass line and figured bass indications of the harmony. The melody of Komm, süsser Tod, however, is known in no other source than this Gesang-Buch, and it is generally believed that Bach wrote the piece from scratch. Because of its extremely slow tempo, its 21 bars stretch to over five minutes. As a result, this work presents special musical challenges for players: bowing, breath control, making subtle changes in dynamics while playing a single note. Like most chorales, this one has four phrases, each of which is repeated. Stokowski gives a different orchestration to each phrase, particularly setting off a dialogue between strings and winds. Example 1

Throughout his long conducting career, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) sought to popularize classical music. To this end he transcribed many works in colorful orchestrations and also collaborated with Walt Disney in 1940 on the film Fantasia. His many orchestral transcriptions of J.S. Bach’s instrumental and vocal works gained him many admirers – and many enemies. The most famous of these transcriptions was the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, used in Fantasia.
Torsten Rasch b. 1965
Torsten Rasch
b. 1965
Torsten Rasch
Violin Concerto Tropoi

German composer Torsten Rasch grew up and studied piano and composition in Dresden at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he moved to Japan, where he became a well-known composer of over 40 film and TV scores. But commissions from Germany and Britain gradually pulled him back to Berlin to compose vocal, symphonic and chamber music, and even try his hand at opera.

The Violin Concerto, Tropoi – singular tropos, a word of multiple meanings, here referring to turn or change – is Rasch’s first concerto. It was inspired by Helmut Krausser‘s 1993 novel Melodien oder Nachträge zum quecksilbernen Zeitalter (Melodies or Postscript to a Mercurial Age), in which myth, magic, music, and madness interact in a dark, and increasingly disturbing, narrative. It was commissioned jointly by the Dresden Philharmonic, the Spokane Symphony and the South Carolina Philharmonic, and premiered in Dresden in 2016. According to reviews of the premiere, the music is inspired by the Classical violin literature, as well as by film music. Referring to his Concerto in relation to the history of the great violin concertos, Rasch said: “My aim is not re-invent the building and to make the ceiling into the floor. I want however to remold the house with my language, my ideas.”

The publisher writes about the Concerto: “From the first movement, Descent, which begins with the violin suspended high in the stratosphere, to the second movement, where much of the constantly renewing material derives from the Veni Creator Spiritus chant, Rasch’s concerto traces an uncompromising and utterly personal trajectory, which only becomes more intense as it progresses. The finale, Ascent, reaches its culmination with a quotation of the Easter Hymn Salve festa dies but concludes, not with a feeling of release, but rather one of the concerto traveling full circle – back to the allusive high writing with which it began.”
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov 1844-1908
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Scheherazade, Op. 35

In the tradition of Russian national music, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov holds a place of honor. Musically self-taught, he originally trained as a naval office, serving in that capacity from 1862 to 1873. Throughout his naval career he studied music on the side until 1871 when he won a faculty position at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in spite of the fact that he had little formal training. Until his death he taught and encouraged nearly every young Russian composer from Alexander Glazunov and Anton Arensky to Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Prokofiev.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s inspiration derived from the operas of Mikhail Glinka, whose music combined Russian melodies with oriental modes of Russia’s vast Eastern provinces. Together with César Cui, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky, he formed the group called “The mighty five,” whose aim was to promote Russian national music. Ironically, Rimsky-Korsakov was by far the best-trained musician among them. His use of instrumental color and masterly orchestration was so famous that any Russian composer with serious aspirations – and many foreigners – made the pilgrimage to his orchestration and composition classes, some, like Ottorino Respighi, coming from as far away as Italy. After the death of Borodin and Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov edited and completed their manuscripts – especially their operas – and had them published. Unfortunately, he had a habit of “correcting” everything that he considered over the top, from harmonic progressions to the order of scenes. A side-by-side evaluation of Musorgsky’s original score of A Night on Bald Mountain with Rimsky’s changes is quite a revelation; it raises the moral question: Which is worse, completely changing someone else’s work and leaving his name on it, or borrowing someone else’s work under ones own name?

The symphonic poem Scheherazade, based on A Thousand Nights and One Night (commonly called the Arabian Nights) was composed in 1888 and premiered in November of that year. It is among the most colorful works in the orchestral repertoire, glowing with brilliant orchestration and lush solos. The frame story of A Thousand Nights and One Night tells of a Khalif who was in the habit of killing his wives after a single night of lovemaking. His latest bride, Scheherazade, avoids that fate by telling him suspenseful stories, concluding each evening with a cliffhanger. After years of such nightly entertainment, the Khalif finally decides to keep her.

The Suite comprises four tableaux, in which the yarn-spinning Scheherazade “speaks” through virtuoso passages for solo violin that tie the tableaux together. Her theme ties the tableaux together and is occasionally incorporated into a story. Example 1 None of the four tableaux refers specifically to any of Scheherazade’s tales; rather, they allude to the types of characters and incidents that make up the vast body of stories. The tone poem begins with the low brasses blasting out the theme representing the Khalif, Example 2 followed by a passage that Rimsky snitched from Mendelssohn to denote the world of fairytales. Example 3 & Example 4

The first tableau, “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” includes a combination of rhythms and changing dynamics that imitate the motion of the waves in two principal themes, the second one a transformation of the Khalif's theme. Example 5 Scheherazade's theme is transformed to fit the rocking of the waves. Example 6

“The Tale of the Kalendar Prince” constitutes the second tableau. It changes the pace to reflect a number of loosely bound battle episodes, including a main theme introduced in an English horn solo, Example 7 and virtuosic fanfare passages for solo trumpet. Example 8

The third tableau, “The Young Prince and the Young Princess,” is the most romantic. The violins introduce the first intimate theme, Example 9 followed by an Oriental dance. Example 10

The final tableau is a passionate conversation between The Khalif's and Scheherazade, as she readies herself for her last chance at survival. Example 11 TThe tableau actually recalls a number of episodes from her repertory of stories; marked in the score are: “The Festival at Baghdad, Example 12 ” The Sea,” (reprise of the theme from the first tableau)“The ship founders on a rock topped by the bronze statue of a warrior,” Example 13 and “Conclusion.” The music is fiery and exciting until the end, when Scheherazade’s stories come to a quiet and plaintive end while she awaits the life or death decision of the Khalif, whose theme finally moderates to a gentle section solo for the cellos.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017