Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 - 1908)
Rimsky-Korsakov gave the four movements of Scheherazade titles loosely based on the One Thousand and One Nights stories, but later withdrew the titles so that listeners could make up their own stories as they experienced his music. Like his Russian compatriots Tchaikovsky and Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov brought exciting rhythmic vitality and a flair for orchestral color to the Romanticism inherited from Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner. Scheherazade is a virtuoso showpiece for the entire ensemble as well as individual players (especially the violin, cello, clarinet, and bassoon), but it also has sections in which the entire orchestra has to coordinate in rhapsodic phrases that spontaneously ebb and flow. The fourth movement, with its overlay of two, three, and six beats per measure creates energy that finally spills over into the return of the “sea” music from the first movement.
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Claude Debussy (1862- 1918)
Debussy’s tone poem, inspired by a literary poem of Stéphane Mallarmé, created a quiet revolution, because for all its sensual beauty, the way musical ideas are created and connected radically breaks from the goal-directed themes and harmonic progressions of his predecessors. Wisps of themes drift in and out, occasionally creating moments of tension or dramatic weight, but they always dissipate and a new musical idea emerges. At the end, the music dissolves into silence.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Paul Dukas (1865 – 1935)
Anyone living today has probably experienced (in the movie theater, on VHS tape, DVD disc, or most recently, streaming) Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and therefore cannot hear The Sorcerer’s Apprentice without thinking of Mickey Mouse. Dukas took his inspiration from a 1797 poetic ballad by Goethe. The musical sections closely follow the action of the poem, which is told in first person from the viewpoint of the apprentice. I’ve always felt sorry for Dukas in that like Clement Clarke Moore, the distinguished professor of Oriental and Greek literature who is known today only for “’Twas the Night before Christmas,” he is remembered for this one work despite having composed orchestral, stage, and ballet works.