John Adams visited an exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris detailing the history of the “Arabian Nights,” he was struck by how the archetypal story of Scheherazade has evolved over the centuries. “The casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of these tales,” he writes, “prodded me to think about the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated. In the old tale Scheherazade is the lucky one who, through her endless inventiveness, is able to save her life. But there is not much to celebrate here when one thinks that she is spared simply because of her cleverness and ability to keep on entertaining her warped, murderous husband.”When
Adams musically encoded his 21st century interpretation in terms of a dramatic symphony in which the principle character Scheherazade is taken by the solo violin. According to Adams, “the symphony follows a set of provocative images: a beautiful young woman with grit and personal power; a pursuit by “true believers”; a love scene which is both violent and tender; a scene in which she is tried by a court of religious zealots, and a final scene of “escape, flight, and sanctuary.”
John Adams: Scheherazade.2
Hector Berlioz attended the premiere of Luigi Cherubini’s Ali Baba on 22 July 1833, and he dryly commented that it was “one of the feeblest things Cherubini ever wrote.” Based on the folk tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” a story added to the collection of “One Thousand and One Nights” by Antoine Galland, the libretto was fashioned by Eugène Scribe and by Mélesville.
It tells the story of Nadir’s love for Delia, the daughter of the wealthy merchant Ali Baba. However, Delia is promised to the head collector Aboul-Hassan, but when Nadir finds a hidden treasure in a cave guarded by a gang of robbers, he asks for Delia’s hand. Curious, Ali Baba wants to know the secret of Nadir’s sudden wealth, but he is trapped in the cave and captured by the thieves. Aboul-Hassan, meanwhile, is furious at not being able to marry Delia and kidnaps her. The robbers ask a ransom to release Ali Baba, but eventually Aboul-Hassan and his soldiers arrest the leaders of the gang. Mendelssohn commented “Cherubini was so craven to serve the new style en vogue in Paris that time,” and while Cherubini’s last opera might not pass muster under anthropological cross-examination, it nevertheless serves as an important historical and musical document.
Luigi Cherubini: Ali Baba
In February 1919, the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen presented a new production of Adam Oehlenschläger’s play “Aladdin.” Credited with introducing romanticism into Danish literature, it’s not surprising that Oehlenschläger adapted one of the most popular folk tales from the “Arabian Nights” collection. Johannes Poulsen directed the play, and he commissioned Carl Nielsen to compose incidental music for this theatrical production. Poulsen envisioned an elaborate stage design that also utilized a large portion of the orchestral pit. And to make matters worse, he cut substantial parts of the music, which originally lasted over 80 minutes. Nielsen was not amused, and he demanded that his name be removed from the posters and the program. Eventually, Nielsen returned to the “Aladdin” score and extracted a number of orchestral items for concert performance. Published as the Aladdin Suite in 1940, the music proved immediately popular and it remains one of Nielsen’s most widely performed works.
Carl Nielsen: Aladdin Suite, Op. 34
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous orchestral suite Scheherazade, based on the legendary Persian queen and storyteller, combined his gift for brilliant orchestration with a heightened interest in Eastern culture. Providing musical unity to all four movements of the Suite is a melody that represents Scheherazade herself. And that particular theme served the Norwegian composer Ketil Hvoslef (b.1939) as the starting point for his composition Scheherazade forteller videre (Scheherazade continues to tell stories). According to the composer, “the piece continues where Rimsky-Korsakov left off. I cannot believe that Rimsky-Korsakov found room for all the stories; therefore I have taken the freedom of adding six more stories in my piece. As an introduction to each tale, I use the same four bars (quoted literally) as Rimsky-Korsakov uses in his.” The final tale takes shape in the manner of a mirage, inviting future composer to take over.
Ketil Hvoslef: Scheherazade forteller videre
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