Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade project
This is a vocal composition project based on the music and stories of Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. We have outlined the background of the piece and the composer, followed by how to create your own version of Scheherazade with your children. This project is designed to be flexible, so you can make it as simple or as challenging as you like. This being the case, it could take as few as two sessions or be extended much longer.
Please feel free to adapt the ideas below to suit the resources you have and the needs of your children.
This resource is © copyright Lucy Griffiths, London 2018 (see About the Author section at the bottom of the article for more information).
Resources needed for this project:
- A recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. We recommend you find a recording of the full piece (there are many online), but have also provided a few short extracts in the playlist below
- An instrument to demonstrate musical examples (e.g. xylophone, piano)
- Variety of classroom percussion (optional. Ideally plenty of tuned instruments, such as chime bars, glockenspiels, xylophones)
- Paper and pens to write down your piece so you don't forget anything!
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) and Scheherazade
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a Russian composer. He wrote 15 operas and many songs, but has become best known for his large orchestral works, including Scheherazade and Cappriccio Espagnol. “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” from The Tale of Tsar Saltan is also an extremely popular piece. Rimsky-Korsakov was a master of orchestration and is well known for his musical descriptions; he had an incredible ability to depict places or times in his music, and his pieces are full of interesting characters.
As well as being a composer, Rimsky-Korsakov was a Professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and also had a career in the Russian Navy, ultimately as Inspector of Naval Bands. He had a love of the sea, and this also influenced his work as a composer.
Rimsky-Korsakov set out to develop a nationalistic style of music. He often used fairy tales and folk songs as the basis of his compositions, as well as orientalism and Western techniques. He influenced many other composers, and was key to establishing a “Russian style” of music.
Rimsky-Korsakov composed Scheherazade in 1888. It is a symphonic suite, based on the story of One Thousand and One Nights, and has four movements:
- The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
- The Legend of the Kalendar Prince
- The Young Prince and The Young Princess
- Festival at Baghdad
The story of Scheherazade
Sultan Shakriar, an unreasonable and angry ruler, becomes convinced that women can’t be trusted. He decides to marry every woman in his land, one by one, only to execute them the day after the wedding night.
This horrible plan continues for many years until it’s Scheherazade’s turn to get married. Scheherazade is the daughter of one of the Sultan's advisors. She is very clever and loves reading books. Scheherazade comes up with a cunning plan to save her own life; on her wedding night she will tell the Sultan a magical story. When the morning arrives she will leave the story unfinished, on a cliffhanger. The Sultan will be desperate to know how the story ends and demand to know what happens next, but Scheherazade will make him wait until the following night to find out. She will keep this going night after night, surviving execution each morning.
The plan works and Scheherazade tells stories about everything! – Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, Aladdin and his lamp, Sinbad and his ship, the Baghdad festival and many, many more. She tells stories every night for 1001 nights, and only then does the Sultan realise that he cannot live without his beautiful storyteller. They live happily ever after, of course! Or do they?
Creative project: re-create Scheherazade in class
Introduction: tell the story of Scheherazade
First, make sure everyone knows how to say Scheherazade! It sounds like this: She-heh-ra-zard. Or click here to listen to recordings of people saying it.
1. Discuss the story with the group. How do they feel about the narrative and the characters? What kind of scenes does the story make them imagine? How would it have felt for the Sultan’s many brides? What happens next after the 'happy' ending?
2. Play the group the opening of Scheherazade (there are many recordings online). Before you play the music, ask the children to come up with actions for the Sultan, Scheherazade and the sea, and they can do the actions when they hear the relevant sounds. We have included examples of Rimsky-Korsakov's motifs in our playlist above.
The first five and a half minutes of the piece include several important features:
- The first thing you hear is the Sultan’s motif (you can also hear it in the playlist above).
- After a series of chords, you then hear Scheherazade’s motif (you can also hear it in the playlist above).
- The Sultan’s motif is then reintroduced in a more subtle, yet threatening, form.
- We hear Scheherazade again, played by the solo violin and then woodwinds.
- All the way through, we can hear the sea rippling away in the lower strings(you can hear it in the playlist above - listen to the cello line).
If you like, play the opening again, to familiarise children with the motifs for the different characters. What else can they hear happening?
3. Ask the group to tell the most exciting stories they know – and perhaps ask them to withhold the ending of the story until the next session!
It is important to warm up before you start doing any vocal work. This will also help with engaging and focusing the group. Make sure you cover the main elements of any warm up before singing: physical, breathing and vocalising. Here are a few ideas and examples:
1. Physical warm up: This might include stretching, shaking the arms and legs, massaging the face and chewing.
Character game: Ask the children to walk around the room. Call out words related to the story of Scheherazade and ask the group to respond accordingly:
Sultan = continue walking slowly
Scheherazade = continue walking quickly
Danger = freeze
Port = all go to the port side of the room
Starboard = all go to the starboard side of the room
Story = pose like an actor
You can add in your own words, ask the children to come up with ideas, and even ask individuals to lead the game by calling out the words.
2. Breathing warm up: Start with a big yawn, then try making and short but powerful sounds such as ‘sss’ and ‘sshh’. Repeat each sound 4 to 16 times. These sounds should be made with the whole body, not just the mouth.
3. Vocalising warm-ups:
Scheherazade: Take the word ‘Scheherazade’ and use it as the basis of the exercise described above, like this:
Make a ‘sh’ sound 4 times
Pant 4 times ‘heh’
Roll your tongue 4 times
Make a ‘zzz’ sound 4 times
Say ‘ah’ 4 times going from low to high
Do a hard ‘d’ sound 4 times
Do this as a call and response exercise whereby you demonstrate the sound and ask the children to repeat immediately in rhythm. Next, put this all together making each sound four times without gaps. Have a short break, and then put it together with three of each sound, then two, and finally once each. Hopefully the children will have worked out what they're saying by now!
Extension game: Get into groups of five and stand in a circle facing each other. Go round the circle completing the ‘Scheherazade’ pattern described above. Because there are only five people and six separate sounds, every time you go round the circle each person will have to make a different sound. It’s a good breathing warm up but an even better brain warm up!
Vocalising: You could begin by making some gentle ‘mmm’ sounds, and then change to ‘ng’ as in the end of the word ‘sing’. Using the ‘ng’ sound, try sirening, which means sliding to the top of your range and right down to the bottom, going round and round. You can then use and words or sounds as a call and response exercise, varying the pitch and expression each time.
4. Singing warm-ups: To get everyone singing, choose a simple song or round you already know, and change the words to relate to the story of Scheherazade. For example:
To the tune of Frère Jacques:
Here’s the Sultan,
He’s so mean.
Things are looking bad for
His next Queen.
When there’s strife:
Telling funny stories
Saves your life!
To the tune of When The Saints Go Marching In:
Scheherazade is beautiful,
And she will be the Sultan’s wife,
But will her stories be exciting?
I hope that they will save her life.
Extension: Ask the children to make up relevant words about Scheherazade to tunes they know.
Composition: Characters and themes
Start by explaining what a motif is: a short, recurring musical idea which signifies a character, mood or event in a story. Rimsky-Korsakov used this musical device in Scheherazade.
The first part of this project will involve creating 4 motifs to represent characters/themes in the story of Scheherazade: the Sultan, Scheherazade herself, weddings, and danger. You can do this as one whole class, or divide into 4 groups, one for each motif.
The Sultan and Scheherazade have their own motifs in Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece. We can use his music as the basis for our own work (option 1) or, alternatively, create our own, new motifs (option 2). Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t create specific motifs for weddings or danger, so we will need to create our own.
OPTION 1: Using Rimsky-Korsakov’s motifs to represent Scheherazade and the Sultan
Look at and listen to the relevant motifs in Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece.
You can either learn to sing/play them, or adapt them to make them simpler.
Once you’ve done this, add relevant words to make them more memorable and easier to sing.
Here is the Sultan’s original motif:
This is quite tricky to sing, so you could adapt it to make it simpler, add words, and transpose it to a suitable pitch, like this:
Here is Scheherazade’s original motif:
This melody looks more difficult than it really is, but can be simply adapted to create something more sing-able, also with words added and transposed to a comfortable pitch:
OPTION 2: Create your own motifs for Scheherazade, the Sultan, weddings and danger
This can be done as a whole group, or in 4 smaller groups.
1. Start by discussing the characteristics of the Sultan and Scheherazade. What might they look like? How do they move? What are their personalities like? For example, you might decide that the Sultan in mean, angry, strong, arrogant, moves slowly and is ugly and heavy. You might decide that Scheherazade, by contrast, is beautiful, kind, confident, gentle, and light on her feet.
2. The next step is to make up some words for each motif. These could be in the 1st person, the 3rd person or simply be adjectives to describe the character.
3. Now take these characteristics and words and use them as a starting point and use them to make up your own musical motifs for the characters. They can be as short and simple or as complicated as you would like to make them!
4. Here are some of the musical decisions you will need to consider. Should the music for this character be:
- High or low?
- Fast or slow?
- Stepwise movement or jumps?
- Smooth or spiky?
- Loud or quiet?
- Voices only or with instruments too?
5. If you’re using instruments to compose the motifs, it might be simpler to restrict which notes you're using i.e. only the white notes on the piano from C to C, or using a pentatonic scale (in the key of C this is the notes C D E G A).
6. Here are some examples of simple made-up motifs for each character:
In this example, I’ve decided that the Sultan’s music should be low, slow and descending in pitch:
By way of contrast, I’ve decided in this example that Scheherazade’s music should be higher, faster, gentle and with a pleasing melody:
7. The next stage is to create the motifs for the many weddings that the Sultan has, and the many deaths that follow them. For the wedding motif, you may choose to make the sound of wedding bells, to sing an extract of a famous wedding march with or without words put to it, or to make up a new motif. Example:
Create an 8 beat pattern using the 8 notes of a major scale, to replicate wedding bells. The simplest version of this would be a descending scale from C to C, or you might like to create your own pattern, for example:
To make this sound bell-like, sing each note to a ‘dong’ sound. The ‘d’ of ‘dong’ should be really hard, then close to the ‘ng’ sound quickly.
Use the famous wedding march by Mendelssohn but add your own words, for example:
8. The danger motif could be a sinister tune with eerie words, some percussion/body percussion, even just a scream and a stamp.
Set up your structure with an 16 beat pattern. Danger could sound slow and ominous like the Jaws theme tune or fast and frantic. For this motif, we’re going to create sounds that progress from slow to fast. Here are some examples:
Using body percussion:
Decide on 4 different sounds you can make using your bodies. The first sound will be spread out, the 2nd and 3rd sounds quicker, and the final sound the big climax of your motif:
Sound 1: stamp
Sound 2: clap
Sound 3: knee slap
Sound 4: scream
Similarly, choose 4 or 5 notes which are going to be gradually introduced as the music speeds up. Pick an eerie word or sound to sing this to:
Think about adding other effects too, e.g. unpitched vocal sounds like an evil cackle, steps or stamps, breaths, body percussion etc.
You will need to remember these motifs later, so make sure you have written them down in a way that is meaningful to you.
Composition: Adding story episodes
When you put your piece together, the motifs will provide the scaffolding of the structure, and the stories that Scheherazade tells will be interspersed throughout.
1. Start by discussing how stories are constructed; with a beginning, a middle and a climax – remember how Scheherazade keeps the Sultan hooked to her stories – and an ending.
2. Tell the group they will create musical stories for their Scheherazade piece, which will fit in as episodes in the piece. You can either choose 3 movements of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade which are musical depictions of stories, or children could use a story they already know, or create their own stories.
3. Split into 4 groups:
- Three groups will now take one story each and come up with their own musical version of it (see next step).
- The fourth group will devise an ending for your piece.
4. Now it’s time to create some simple songs which tell these stories. Whichever you choose, they must have a beginning, a climax, a silence/pause/musical idea to represent the overnight wait the Sultan has before he hears how it resolves, and an ending.
- You can either make up a melody, use a melody from the piece, or adapt another melody you know with words of your story.
- The songs can be as short and simple or as long and complicated as you like.
5. When each group has finished their composition/arrangement, perform them to the rest of the group and see if the others can guess what the story was.
6. The fourth group should work on writing an ending of the piece. This might well include a variation of the Scheherazade and Sultan motifs, be a simple love song, or a song that tells the end of the story. Does the group think that Scheherazade and the Sultan will live happily ever after?
Composition: Putting it all together
Now you have all the essential elements you need to create your own performance of Scheherazade: motifs for Scheherezade, the Sultan, weddings and danger, plus story episodes.
You might like to split the parts amongst the groups, have solos, or have everyone singing everything together.
In Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the stories provide the scaffolding, and the motifs are woven into them. This performance is designed to be the other way round, with the motifs as the main part of the structure and the stories fitted into it.
You can construct your however you like, or get the children to decide. Here’s an example of how you might combine all these compositional elements:
1. Sultan motif – wedding motif – danger motif (repeat this several times to represent all the women the Sultan married and killed prior to meeting Scheherazade).
2. Sultan motif – Scheherazade motif – wedding motif
3. Story 1
4. Sultan motif – Scheherazade motif
5. Story 2
6. Sultan motif – Scheherazade motif
7. Story 3
8. Ending (love song)
Practise your class version of Scheherazade so it’s solid, and then perform to another class, or film and send to the LPO – we’d love to see it!
Taking it further
If you’d like to take this project further, you might wish to consider the following activities:
1. Develop the music you’ve already created to make it more complicated, extended or add harmonies to create 2 or more parts.
2. Add percussion to the vocal lines as sound effects. You can use classroom percussion, body percussion, or explore ways to make sounds out of everyday objects.
3. Add an accompaniment with whatever instruments are available to tie the piece together.
4. Explore the music of the Arabic world, and try to weave in some compositional elements (e.g. scales, songs, instruments, singing styles etc.) that conjure up this region in the listener's mind.
5. Add movement and/or dance to the music to create an interesting visual performance, or act it out.
6. Create artwork to illustrate your piece.
Sharing your work
About the Author
Lucy Griffiths is one of the most respected conductor-animateurs of her generation. Having studied and won several prestigious prizes in the UK and Canada, her leadership experience ranges across vocal and instrumental music-making with professional, amateur, youth and adult ensembles at the very highest level of each. It has seen her appear on TV and radio, premiering new works, adjudicating competitions, touring extensively throughout the UK and internationally, and working alongside some of the world's finest musicians and directors.
Lucy is Assistant Director of Music at the University of Warwick and Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra's Junior Choir. She is a leading expert in the field of music education and engagement, specialising in vocal outreach.