Rimsky-Korsakov and Who Shot J.R.? (And the perils of Pauline, naturally.)
I’m going to guess there is a goodly number of you out there that don’t know about The Perils of Pauline. Long before Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks or even Dallas (remember “Who shot J.R.?”), there was Pauline, the serial many consider to be the original cliffhanger. The Perils of Pauline—along with The Exploits of Elaine—dates back to 1914, when the notion of binge watching wasn’t even a glimmer in Netflix’s eye. This cruel, heartless style of storytelling held the viewer in agony for an entire week, forcing him or her to wait for the next instalment to see if there might be a chance the damsel in distress may not in fact make it off the railroad tracks in time.
But even Pauline pales in comparison to the history’s most successful storyteller, the master craftswoman of the urtext cliffhanger, Scheherazade. In case the name doesn’t instantly ring any bells, she is the narrator of the enchantingly exotic 1001 Arabian Nights. Scheherazade upped the game because the stakes for her were treacherously high. She was the young bride of the Sultan, who, after discovering that one of his wives cheated on him, resolved to take a new bride every night and have her executed in the morning. Harsh. But Scheherazade had her medieval wits about her. Every night, she would tell the Sultan mesmerizing and enchanting tales, and just when she got to the good part, she would stop. She would tell the Sultan that if he wanted to hear how the story ended, he would have to wait until the next night. Her success rate remained unblemished, and her winning streak lasted 1001 nights. By then, the Sultan had forgotten he was supposed to have her executed, and they all lived happily ever after.
When Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov came across these magical tales, including “Aladdin and his Lamp”, “Sinbad the Sailor” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (along with 998 others), he was enchanted. He set out to create a musical depiction of these blazing technicolor characters and harrowing tales of adventure, a symphonic poem in which the orchestra would serve as narrator. This was his very own Scheherazade. We hear the menacing Sultan in the low brass instruments, and the beguiling Scheherazade on the solo violin; there’s a sweeping love story between the young prince and princess, a raucous street festival in Baghdad, and even a calamitous shipwreck (one of Sinbad’s increasingly predictable many). As the first master orchestrator of what we now recognize as the modern symphony orchestra, Rimsky-Korsakov had an unparalleled understanding of the technical workings of each of the instruments, and his score is a veritable tour-de-force for every player on stage. The result is a dazzling kaleidoscope of sound and a rich tapestry of exotic melodies.
This iconic piece demonstrates as well as any in the repertoire one of the great and enduring powers of a symphony orchestra: its ability to tell a story. Move over Pauline.