The trouble with classical music is that it has no punch. The notes have no attack; melodies wander aimlessly; movements stagnate. Where is the zing of a plucked metal string, or the thwack from a flick of a hickory stick on a taut sheet of calfskin?
The trouble with rock music is that it’s all Punch and no Judy. Riffs pile on riffs; axe confronts truncheon; sausages are stolen and the violence never stops. Where is the calm at the eye of the storm, a rest for the singer, a break for the horns?
Too often it seems there’s a great chasm between classical music and rock but Renaissance, like no other band, show that it is not as wide as you might imagine. Scheherazade And Other Stories is, I think, the most spectacular bridge across those two great continents of the musical world.
On the first side of the 1975 vinyl release of Scheherazade And Other Stories there are three songs. As far as genre goes they sit somewhere around the progressive rock and symphonic rock areas – rock music with the elegance and grace of a symphony. The second side is one 24 minute track that really belongs on the other side of the bridge, in the classical lands. It’s a piano concerto and choral work performed with an orchestra, a choir and amplified electric instruments – classical music with a punch.
The long opening track tells of a scarily disorienting Trip to the Fair. A piano étude leads into a stirring march, an electric bass calling “left, right, left, right, …” in double quick time. Ghostly voices cry on the wind and echo above our heads as we tramp forward; a blood-curdling cackle rips through the air and swiftly fades away. We were promised a night at the funfair but this is no joy ride. The drummer rattles out a military beat as the platoon marches on.
Three and a half minutes in we take a break. All is quiet except for a clockwork glockenspiel that tinkles soothingly in the darkness. Then, just when most pop songs are finishing, the light contralto voice of a wide-eyed girl begins to sing:
I took a trip down to look at the fair,
When I arrived I found nobody there.
The rides are deserted. All is quiet. Everything is still. Nervously she looks around and suddenly the silence is shattered by the screech of the dodgems, the rumble of the waltzers, the wheezing drone of the fairground organs. Lights blaze and the fair is full of people, all staring at her. She screams and closes her eyes to shut out the chaos and cacophony. As she struggles to control her rising panic the gentle glockenspiel theme returns and is accompanied by a delicate jazzy piano interlude. In her mind the girl tries to make sense of what she has seen. She went to the fair, but nobody was there. Nobody was there …
Track two is a majestic prog rock song about how people in high places look down on the rest of us, waiting for any chance to profit from the misfortunes of their underlings. It’s called The Vultures Fly High. This is a composition for a 5-piece rock band. No orchestra, no choir; just the usual keyboards, guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It’s a song for a large theatre or open-air arena. Keyboards and bass fill the space with energy, the vocals urge the audience to sing along and the indignant sentiment is one everybody can share. But take heart. Those at the top today will be toppled tomorrow and the once mighty will feel the sharp beak and talons of the new vultures tearing into their soft white flesh.
Sometimes it looks as though we lose,
But then in time the finger points at them,
The next in line.
The first side of the album closes with Ocean Gypsy, a heart-wrenching lament for a lost soul. The words are poetic with all the allure and ambiguity that comes from allusions to older literature. I like the interpretation by Waffles McCoy (on song meanings.com) in which he says “this song tells the tale of someone who gives so much of herself to another that her own essence is eventually lost”. The lyrics remind us of ancient myths in which the sun and moon would be lovers but are doomed never to feel each other’s touch, one trapped in the night, the other confined to the day. As befits such a tragic tale the music is full of synthesiser chords lapping on a sandy beach, guitar runs rippling over pebbles and vocal harmonies whispering with the wind. It is a truly beautiful song.
On the album’s second side there is the Song of Scheherazade in which Renaissance tell the framing story for the collection of middle-eastern folk tales, One Thousand And One Nights. Set in an unspecified country centuries past it tells of a Sultan who discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. In his fury and humiliation he has her executed and, believing that all women are equally deceitful, he vows to take a new wife every day. The Sultan instructs his vizier to select a virgin from among his people for each new bride and, having spent the night with her, he has her beheaded before she can dishonour him, as his first wife had done.
This continues until the only marriageable woman left is the vizier’s own daughter Scheherazade. In spite of the vizier’s pleas to spare his daughter the Sultan insists that Scheherazade should be his next bride. Scheherazade consoles her distraught father, telling him that she is not afraid and hinting that she will not die when the dawn comes the morning after the wedding.
The wedding ceremony takes place, as arranged, and that night Scheherazade draws on her knowledge of myths, legends and traditional stories to entertain her king and pass the long hours until daybreak. The Sultan is utterly enthralled by Scheherazade’s tale of great princes, precious talismans and magical rings. When dawn breaks and the story is still unfinished the king postpones Scheherazade’s execution for one day so that he may hear how it ends. The next night Scheherazade finishes the tale and starts another. The Sultan finds the new story just as fascinating as the last and it, too, remains unfinished when the sun comes up again. So the Sultan postpones the execution one more day.
Scheherazade continues telling her exotic tales, the ending untold at dawn, for a thousand nights. Finally, when the Sultan asks for another bedtime story, Scheherazade tells him that she has no more. By this time, though, the Sultan has fallen deeply in love with the vizier’s daughter and he publicly recants his pledge to execute his wives.
It is an epic tale and ideally suited to the symphonic rock format that Renaissance do so well. For this track the band is augmented by a full orchestra and they use it to transform their rock opera into a classical choral work. It could have been done with synthesisers but, in 1975 when the album was recorded, an orchestra provided more scope for variety of sound and texture.
Although Song of Scheherazade is divided into nine sections it is really a single piece of music. Of those nine sections four are songs and five are instrumentals. One of the songs is a story within a story – a love poem that Scheherazade told to the Sultan – echoing the multi-layered structure of the original One Thousand And One Nights collection. That short song stands out as exceptionally warm and life-affirming. The other songs tell of the Sultan’s bitterness, Scheherazade’s courage and story-telling skill, and the people’s joy when the Sultan announces an end to the killings. The instrumental passages tie the songs together seamlessly and build a tapestry into which the fabulous tale is woven.
Scheherazade bewitched him with songs of jewelled keys …
Told him tales of sultans and talismans and rings.
A thousand and one nights she sang to entertain her king.
Scheherazade, Scheherazade, Scheherazade!
In the end, is Scheherazade and Other Stories classical or rock? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is both. It certainly has the power and punch of a rock music track. And it has the elegance and grace of classical works, too. So, who cares how we label it. It’s rollicking great music; let’s just enjoy it.