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Program Notes: Scheherazade (November 27-28, 2021)

Updated: Nov 26, 2021


These concerts are performed in memory of St. Louis Post-Dispatch classical music critic Sarah Bryan Miller.

Gemma New, conductor

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Edward Elgar

Sea Pictures (1897)

Sea Slumber Song

In Haven (Capri)

Sabbath Morning at Sea

Where the Corals Lie

The Swimmer

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

The Work at Hand (2015) Part One: Original Origami— Part Two: Warrior 1— Part Three: The Slow Seconds

Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Chung, cello

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Scheherazade (1897)

The Sea and Sinbad's Ship

The Story of the Kalendar Prince The Young Prince and Princess

Festival in Baghdad; The Sea; Shipwreck; Conclusion

David Halen, violin


Program Notes

By Caitlin Custer

Edward Elgar

Sea Pictures

Edward Elgar

Born June 2, 1857, Broadheath, England

Died February 23, 1934, Worcester, England

Edward Elgar had his first taste of fame. His Enigma Variations earned him positive press and repeat performances. This was welcome news for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which commissioned and premiered Sea Pictures. Elgar conducted the premiere with contralto Clara Butt—whose powerful and agile voice he had in mind when he wrote the song cycle. Shortly thereafter they performed it in London and at Balmoral for Queen Victoria, a stratospheric rise for Elgar.

Elgar chose each poems deliberately, but there isn’t an immediate link between the subjects or the different authors. The cycle has all the ingredients of an epic story—tenderness, love, strife, death, and soul-searching—but we are left to fill in the plot for ourselves.

Sea Slumber Song: The sea at gentlest twilight. Soft strings form a luxurious bed for the voice, and the harp entices us to dream.

In Haven (Capri): Elgar set one of his wife’s poems to music in this floating love song. Turns between plucked and bowed strings give the effect of miniature waves rolling in and out.

Sabbath Morning at Sea: The narrator searches for spiritual connection on a ship at sea. The subtle roll of the ship can be heard in the percussion and strings. Brass burst through as the narrator finds religious zeal and devotion.

Where Corals Lie: The strings become a ticking clock. The narrator is dying, ready to pass on to “the land where corals lie.” Swells of music and emotion emerge, then fade.

The Swimmer: The sea shows its dangerous side. Waves crash over rocks, tides swirl, winds sweep up storms. Light and love triumph.

First performance: October 5, 1899, at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in England, the composer conducting, with Clara Butt as soloist

First SLSO performance: February 18, 1910, Max Zach conducting, with Louise Kirkby-Lunn as soloist

Most recent SLSO performance: November 8, 1985, Peter Susskind conducting, with Mary Henderson as soloist

Instrumentation: solo mezzo-soprano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, gong, suspended cymbal), harp, organ

Approximate duration: 23 minutes

Jake Heggie

The Work at Hand

Jake Heggie

Born March 31, 1961, West Palm Beach,

Jake Heggie’s The Work at Hand is a deeply personal work. Its kernel is a poem by Laura Morefield, whose mother was a close friend of Heggie’s. Heggie found out that Morefield was a poet around the time she was diagnosed with cancer—in her late 40s—and asked her to send him some of her favorite creations. She sent a packet that Heggie found “shatteringly beautiful.”

Heggie writes, “The Work at Hand is one of Laura’s post-diagnosis poems. It is about the difficult and deeply human experience of knowing it is time to say goodbye and let go: resenting, fighting, struggling, and then finding peace in acceptance. The language and imagery she chose is particularly striking: origami, the yoga Warrior 1 position, and a shimmering reconnection to nature.”

The three stanzas of the poem translate into short movements. The first movement opens with the solo cello brewing a storm, pierced by the aching solo voice. The orchestra becomes a spiral staircase in the middle movement, cello and voice dizzy from climbing and descending. In the final movement, gray clouds emerge and recede, allowing the sun to shine through only too briefly.

First performance: May 15, 2015, by the Pittsburgh Symphony, Michael Francis conducting, with Jamie Barton as soloist

First SLSO performance: This weekend’s concerts

Instrumentation: solo mezzo-soprano, solo cello, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, percussion (bass drum, bongos, crotales, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam tam, temple blocks, triangle, vibraphone), harp, strings

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Born March 18, 1844, Tikhvin, Russia

Died June 21, 1908, Lyubensk, Russia

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov idealized lush Romantic music, drawing on folk song and musical elements considered exotic by most of Europe at the time. He was drawn to the folklore collection One Thousand and One Nights, a series compiled over centuries by countless authors across the Middle East. Stories follow legendary figures like Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba. Though many versions exist, they all share a framed structure—a story within a story. That’s where the character of Scheherazade comes in.

The story begins with a powerful sultan. He kills his first wife, declaring her unfaithful. He kills more women: marrying a new virgin each day, beheading her the next. His tyranny is so far-reaching that he runs out of women eligible to marry, save one: his advisor’s daughter, Scheherazade.

On her wedding night, Scheherazade tells the sultan a story. She keeps her tale going until dawn, stopping at a pivotal, cliffhanger moment. Captivated, the sultan asks her to continue the story the next night. She keeps this pattern up for 1,001 nights. By then, the sultan is smitten, and Scheherazade becomes queen.

Rimsky-Korsakov was intentionally vague with this symphonic suite, refraining from creating a strict program of music to match a story. The movement titles are broadly related to the tales, but aren’t based on any individual version. Rimsky-Korsakov does give us two signposts at the work’s opening: the sultan’s aggressive, brassy theme; and Scheherazade’s hypnotic theme in the solo violin. Variations on these themes return throughout the work.

First performance: November 3, 1888, by the Russian Symphony, in Saint Petersburg, the composer conducting

First SLSO performance: March 11, 1910, Max Zach conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: October 13, 2018, Gustavo Gimeno conducting, with David Halen as soloist

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 piccolos (2nd flute doubling 2nd piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam tam, tambourine, triangle), harp, strings

Approximate duration: 42 minutes


Caitlin Custer is the SLSO's Communications Manager.

Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.


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