This gem is all that remains of an opera inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade
that Ravel never completed. The overture gives the woodwinds free rein in sinuous,
mysterious lines until the full orchestra enters to paint a glorious vision hinting at such marvels that it is no wonder the cruel Sultan Shahriyar could never bring himself to put an end to Scheherazade and her stories.
Still fascinated by the subject, Ravel took three poems by his friend Léon Leclère in
the Orientalist tradition that had bewitched French thought in the 19th century, and
adapted some of the music from his overture to them.
The first, Asie, lists the wonders of the east, its people, its minarets and mandarins, scholars and scimitars. The second, La flûte enchantée, features rapturous solos:
“Each note seems to fly from the flute to my cheek like a mysterious kiss.”
The third, L’indifférent, responds voluptuously to a beautiful stranger who passes, soft-eyed, hips swaying languidly.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s heavy brass lay down the
Sultan’s stern proclamation against women. In response, a solo violin opens the curtain to Scheherazade’s world of magically exotic scenes, unwinding the tales of the Arabian Nights in a chain of gorgeously orchestrated melodies. Throughout the work, the brilliant violin represents the beguiling storyteller; the grim opening chords represent both her cruel husband and, at times, the dramatic events of the stories he hears. At the end both themes are combined and transformed into a rapturous calm.