A Storyteller’s Wiles

Repost day.  I love this post because I get to listen to my beloved Rimsky-Korsakov and shout his name from the rooftops. Give me the mad, bad, wild Russian composers any day of the week…

When I met my husband, many moons ago, he was what one might call a wild child.

He and his bawdy group of young intellectuals did not even attempt to balance their finely-honed minds with that mammoth-slaying elemental maleness which puzzles women so.

He was a loose cannon. Anything could happen in the next half hour. On an early date I remember having a pint of lager emptied unceremoniously on my head outside a pub because I offended. I reciprocated in kind. We both shouted with laughter. And we went home hoppy and soggy, never to repeat the experience.

He had had strings of women at his beck and call as these mad, bad and dangerous to know types usually do. One had a PhD in chemistry: another was a stunning journalist with a bluestocking background. A third came from a go-getting, entrepreneurial family, and to this day is well-off. All had moved on.

Anyone who wanted to keep this gentleman needed to keep their wits about them. And now I look back, the same could be said of me.

As the great Monty Python script goes, our chief weapon was surprise.

We kept each other guessing, inadvertently, subconsciously, delighting in the art of the one liner and the outrageously unexpected.

For us, the extraordinary became commonplace, which is nice, because somehow I can never have too much of this commodity.

There’s a woman in literature whose chief weapon was surprise.

And to remind you about her- for like other heroes of mine, you know her, as if she were an old friend – I shall use a translation of the Persian original. It was translated by Sir Richard F Burton.

“She had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed, it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers.

“She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well-bred.”

Clever girl.

Scheherazade, one of literature’s greatest storytellers, used her art to keep herself alive. Among the pages of 1001 nights, we hear how the great King, Shahryar, had a bad experience with his wife.

She had been unfaithful. And his power had been lampooned, and his heart was broken, and all by a woman.

So, he revenged himself on womankind. Each night he ordered a new virgin to be brought to him. Each night he slept with her: and the next morning, as if to seal the perception that he had washed his hands of the fairer sex, he had his new bride executed.

Three thousand women, he had got through. Three thousand young girls with their lives before them.

Note, then, that Scheherazade, the Vizier’s daughter, was no victim. In the light of these events, she chose to walk into the lion’s den. One night, she presented herself at the palace, with a plan.

Before she embarked on her last night, she asked the King, might she see her beloved sister one last time?

Had he refused, there would be no nights at all. But being fictional, he said yes. In his presence, she told her sister part of a story: just half of the most glittering and captivating of tales.

Of course, the King wanted to hear more. So this wife was spared the next morning, that she might complete the story.

And the cast was set. Every day, half a story, to keep the King hanging on for more.

It was not the beauty or youth of this woman that saved her life and that of so many who would have come after her: it was her ability to range through the corridors of a King’s imagination, pulling out a hero here, a magic carpet there, a rogue, a beauty, a brigand, a magical eclectic collection of events and happenstances.

Polite and witty, well-read and well-bred. My heroine.

She’s would her wiles round the odd composer, too.

When  I went to college to study music, my teachers never could get past my love for the exuberant Russian composers.

Whilst they strived to train my thoughts towards the heavy genius of Beethoven and Mahler, my red shoes kept dancing me towards those bad-eyed East European mavericks.

This piece was written by a Russian sailor – an officer in the Russian Imperial Navy.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the five firebrands who painted the vast wastes of Russia for the world, using just manuscript on paper. His passion for the sea seeps through every bar.

And the Russian sailor and composer chose the Persian queen and storyteller for his subject.

It is all it should be, this tribute to her skills: seductive, MGM-theatrical, mesmerising, possibly slightly de trop: but who gives a fig?

Listen, and enjoy- here….


40 thoughts on “A Storyteller’s Wiles

  1. Now here is a little known fact. Scheherazade was the music chosen to announce the arrival to our screens of Thames TV. This company produced the best TV programmes for a long time, made a lot of money for its investors. It wasn’t able to renew its licence – it was becoming more powerful that the BBC, so the government decided it should be broken up…….


    1. Ah, yes, we can’t have anyone more powerful than the BBC. Was your father involved in Thames? Wonderful to add extra info and build a lateral thinking spider web round Scheherezade….

  2. This proves it: intelligent men prefer intelligent women. But why do intelligent women go for brutes like Shahryar? Unless it’s the lure of power and riches and…she’s just a WAG, isn’t she?

  3. Enjoy it I did, Kate; both your post and music. A very fine and wise way to start my day here. I’m so glad you reposted this. Like all good tales, especially the Russian ones, it is worth repeating again and again. Bravo!

  4. Ahhhh, Kate! I, too, love the bad boys, but my preferred musical delights are from Chopin–the preludes–all played back to back by a fiery Russian! OR the thrill of Schubert sung by the master of all Albert Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Schubert lieds are thrilling beyond all. As a singer (BA, 1977) I love Elly Ameling as she sings Robert Schumann’s “Widmung” from Myrthen op. 25, no.1 with Dalton Baldwin, piano. Recorded 1980. This is one of my all time favorites! Her grace, beauty, control, and freedom in the text and music…not to say anything of Dalton Baldwin who is the finest accompanist…now that I’m going I could keep going for months…we’d have a great party sharing musical loves!

    1. Hello Cheryl, and how wonderful to find someone with tastes like these. What a fine pair we would have made in those 19th century salons, had we been able to see our heroes in action!

  5. When I saw the title of this post, I thought it was about you! I guess it is – what a beautifully woven post, and I can only imagine the speed of wit that passes between you and Phil. It must have been quite explosive when you first met! 🙂
    What a gifted writer you are, Kate. I’m so glad to have found your blog.
    Sunshine xx

  6. You brought me back to some memories of my husband as a much younger man and our courtship–almost four decades ago! I’m grateful you reminded me that surprise can be a GOOD thing! And I know what I’m going to be humming tomorrow! Lovely! Debra

  7. Oh the power of story to keep us alive! Music as well! Literally, figuratively and every which way up and down and all around…stories keep us alive. THANK YOU for reposting this…makes my day.

  8. You haven’t run out of stories yet?

    Now I have the opening playing and replaying in my mind. We once attended a recital by a touring female Russian pianist whose name, alas, I forget, who did the most amazing job of the whole thing on the piano. All the langour and the excitement and the mystique were there.

  9. Glorious! De trop? I thought the link here was played with Russian sturdiness, which I do not intend in a pejorative fashion. It perhaps offers a nice balance, if slightly understated. It often takes us Americans to bloviate this with 21-century faux-pathos. Emo for the dignified…

      1. Yes, but the same sense? Ms. Semenova certainly plays with a certain fire, but it seems more a smoldering undercurrent; not the more flamboyant, “gotta be more extreme than the last one” exhibitionism that is rife in our current culture, here. I am all for dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight and speaking truth to power in blunt terms, but so much of the “go larger” is more about cutting through just to get that vacuous part on that new ‘reality’ TV show. It seems to just muddy the waters, and not really in a good way…

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