or a thousand and one nights, tales so bewitching that a powerful ruler, mad with jealousy and power, set aside his murderous intent so as not to be deprived of their continuing enchantment. While the stories have been the subject of numerous recreations in paper, celluloid, and digital media, their narrator has been less honored.
Scheherazade, wife of King Shahryar, was the namesake of a magnificent symphonic suite by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov. No less ambitious is the more recent 25-minute long work composed and recorded by the progressive rock group Renaissance in 1975.
This version of the Arabian Nights story, entitled “Song of Scheherazade“, focuses on three portions of the tales, as lyricised by Betty Thatcher: The Sultan, The Young Prince and Princess, and The Festival. Michael Dunford’s music provides a rich backdrop for the real star of the piece, the astonishing voice of Annie Haslam. Reputed to have a five-octave range, Annie makes you feel that she is Scheherazade, captivating with both her stories and her voice.
Opening with some very eastern sounding horns, a mini-overture grows as the strings, then piano, drums, and electric bass join. An upbeat cheerful horn-filled fanfare is followed by a dark, foreboding vocal section; the betrayal of The Sultan by his wife. Harmonizing vocals describe the sultan’s cruel response; taking a virgin bride each night, then beheading her at dawn to guarantee no woman will ever be unfaithful as his wife was. But tonight, the virgin bride is Scheherazade, and the brightening of the melody tells us things will be different this time; flutes, chimes, and a choir join the original voices, climbing to a more positive conclusion to this opening movement. It closes with a feeling that it could be a standalone piece, if it weren’t for the unfinished story.
Now, the subtle notes of the piano announce the love theme. Followed immediately by the tale of The Young Prince and Princess as told by Scheherazade, it isn’t yet clear if the love theme is for them, or perhaps for the sultan and Scheherazade.
A delicately beautiful song, only a quiet acoustic guitar and oboe accompany Haslam’s voice as she sings of their love.
"And you would cause the sun to see your light and then be shamed You cover darkness with a thousand secret flames With your love O my love O my love, my love And I would cause the wind to blow A hundred different days And bring the perfumes of the gardens of the ways Of your love O my love O my love, my love"
First the piano, then the orchestra swell the delicate love song to a gentle conclusion. At the end, when Annie sings, “He would vow to love her for the rest of all his days” we know that, although it may be about the young prince and princess, it’s also a sign that Scheherazade has won the sultan’s love, and with it, her life.
Dawn; but instead of preparations for an execution, we have preparations for a wedding! (Dawn, by the way, sounds ever so much like “The Day Begins”, the opening track on the Moody Blues‘ “Days of Future Passed.”) An opening fanfare, then we’re whisked down the winding streets with a parade; joining the jugglers and jongleurs, the merchants and customers, young and old alike dancing in the streets to celebrate the wedding feast.
As quickly as it began, the parade disappears, leaving us alone with Scheherazade as she prepares for her sultan. Slow melodic flute, glittering piano; Scheherazade is at peace.
Now the sultan; perhaps not as calm and composed as his bride-to-be, the sultan’s fugue begins with a single piano melody, then a second contrapuntal melody; now oboes, and finally the full orchestra, taking us to The Festival.
We’re treated once more to Annie Haslam’s voice, describing the gifts from afar being laid at Scheherazade’s feet. Sounding at one moment like a pop tune, with insistent drums and bass, and in the next, like a movement from a Tchaikovsky symphony, the festival builds intensity. The people cheer their sultan, but, knowing she has saved more than her own life, even moreso their queen. As her subjects sing her praises, the orchestra takes us to the finale, capped once more by Haslam’s crystal voice in the final note.
Renaissance provided the soundtrack for my teenage years. I may be prejudiced, but I have yet to find any work which does a better job of combining the grandeur of the classical style with the power of a rock band better than “Song of Scheherazade.”
A remakable bit of trivia: the live version, recorded at Carnegie Hall, was released before the studio version; an unusual twist, especially with such a complex piece. For fans of progressive rock, I’d recommend the live album. It contains an excellent cross-section of the band’s repertoire. Containing the studio version of “Song of Scheherazade”, “Scheherazade and Other Stories” opens with the excellent jazz/rock/classical fusion piece “Trip to the Fair” which was actually played on US radio twice (or perhaps more; I only heard it twice.)