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Ravel's 1903 setting of three texts by his friend and associate, Tristan Klingsor (the pen name of Léon Leclère), entitled Schéhérazade, is an atmospheric evocation of Persian nights and the mysteries of Asia. Ravel's work, like the earlier orchestral suite of the same name by Rimsky-Korsakov, is an absolute masterpiece of orchestration. Although the audio/video YouTube transfer is slightly out of sync, this particular performance, featuring Marilyn Horne and the L'Orchestre National de France under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, is so superb that it's worth it. This is one of the finest performances I've seen of Miss Horne: not only is her voice in marvelously feminine, seductive form, her French is beautifully communicated. I include the English texts below the link.


Maurice Ravel: Schéhérazade


I. Asia

Asia, Asia, Asia!

Olden and wondrous land of tales dreamt by nursemaids,

Where sleeping fantasy lies like an empress fair

In her forest o'erflowing with mystery.

Asia ... I should like to set out aboard the sea-bound schooner

Which is rocking this evening in port,

Mysterious and solitary;

And which at last unfurls its flutt'ring sails of purple

Like an immense night bird aloft in the gold'n sky.

I should like to sail off towards islands of flow'rs

While list'ning to the perverse sea singing

In its old and bewitching rhythm.

I'd like to see Damascus, and cities of Persia

Where light minarets pierce through the air.*

I'd like to see those fine turbans of silk

Over black faces with white teeth gleaming;

I should wish to see eyes shaded with love

From which pupils shine brilliantly with joy

Against complexions as tawny as oranges;

I should like to see fine vestments made of velvet

And flowing robes with long, long fringes.

I'd like to see earthenware pipes stuck into pursed mouths

Wholly surrounded by white whiskers;

I'd like to see rough-edged merchants cast dirty glances,

And the qadis and the viziers,

Who with just the mere movement of their crooked finger

Can dispense life or death at their desire's whim.

I'd see Persia, and India, then also China:

Plump mandarins sitting under umbrellas,

And princesses with hands most lithe,

And wise scholars who yet are quarr'ling

Over poetry and over beauty;

I should like to pause in an enchanted palace

And, like any foreign traveller,

Contemplate at leisure those paintings of landscapes,

On finest fabrics in frames crafted out of fir,

Picturing someone in the middle of a grove;

I'd like to see cruel assassins smile as

An executioner lops a guiltless head

With his big Oriental scimitar.

I'd like to see base paupers and grand queens, too;

I'd like to see red roses and red blood;

I'd like to see death caused by love, or else by hatred.

And later then I'll return home

To share my adventure with curious young dreamers;

And I will raise--just like Sinbad--my old Arabian goblet

Up to my lips every now and then,

Interrupting the tale for artful effect ...

II. The Enchanted Flute

Darkness soothes and my master sleeps,

Coiffed in a cone-shaped night-bonnet of silk,

With his long nose yellow on his white whiskers.

But I, I'm wakened and roused again,

And I hear from outdoors

The lone song of a flute o'erflowing

At first with sorrow but then with such joy!

An air turning from languishing to frivolous,

Which my own dearest lover plays.

And as I move closer to the window,

To me it's as though each note has come winging

From his flute onto my cheek

Like a mysterious caress.

III. The Indifferent One

Your eyes are soft like those of any maiden,

My young stranger,

And the delicate curve

Of your fine features, shadowed with a silk down,

Forms an even more seductive outline.

Your lips form a song at the foot of my doorstep

In a tongue incoherent yet charming,

Rather like music tuned falsely ...

Enter! And let my wine give you refreshment ...

But no ... you pass on,

And from my threshold I watch you depart

As you make a last graceful gesture for me,

With a curved hip casually swaying

From your saunter that's both girlish and languid ...

Tristan Klingsor

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My wife and I had the pleasure of hearing the St. Petersburg Orchestra play this in San Francisco a few months ago. Stunning.

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