Karim Al-Zand: Music: The Seventh Voyage of Sindbad

The Seventh Voyage of Sindbad

a tone poem for orchestra

The Thousand and One Nights [Alf laylah wa-laylah] or the ‘Arabian Nights,’ as the book is more popularly known, is often thought of as a collection of fairy tales. In fact, it is much more than this. The text of the Nights, which in some translations runs to over 4000 pages, contains all manner of stories, parables, heroic epics, philosophical tracts, religious and aesthetic essays, morality fables, jokes, mild erotica and hundreds of verses of poetry. The diverse literary material of the Nights makes it impossible to speak of a single author for the work. Its character owes much to the oral tradition of storytelling and its content is an assembly of various anonymous texts accumulated in the course of its long history. The earliest extant copy of the Nights dates from the mid-ninth century, though many of the stories within it are certainly far older. Its ‘frame’ story—Sheherazade regales the Sultan with fantastical tales and he postpones her execution—is an ancient conceit and, as with many of the narratives in the collection, it has analogues in Indian, Greek, and Latin tales. The Nights as a whole is altogether unique however, as a vast, all-encompassing compendium of folklore, literature, cultural observation, social commentary and of course, lively entertainment. There was a superstition in the nineteenth century Middle East, which said that one could not read the complete, immense text of the Thousand and One Nights without dying.

imageThe Sindbad (or Sindibad) stories were only incorporated into the Nights collection relatively recently (in the early eighteenth century), though the stories themselves probably date from the first hundred years of the Abbasid period (750–1258). Under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, the city of Baghdad was founded in 762 on the west bank of the Tigris river. The city rapidly became one of the most populous, prosperous and cosmopolitan in the world. Both Baghdad and Basra (Baghdad’s port city on the Gulf) feature prominently in the Sindbad stories as the seaman’s home and port of call.

The stories of Sindbad the Sailor chronicle the extraordinary exploits of a restless mariner. Each new adventure is more strange and incredible than the last, yet Sindbad always manages to return home unscathed. Sindbad’s seventh voyage is his last, his longest and perhaps his most remarkable journey. This orchestral tone poem evokes a few episodes from Sindbad’s final adventure in a fantasy-like sequence.

Those interested in more information on the Thousand and One Nights might consult several sources. The most well known translation of the Nights is by Sir Richard Burton (1884), though its language is archaic and somewhat stilted (and it runs to 16 volumes!). An excellent modern translation is by Hussain Haddawy and is based on the earliest extant Arabic language sources (The Arabian Nights, 2 vols.; Knopf: New York, 1995). A good reference for background and historical information is Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Penguin: London, 1994).

High Seas

. . . the launch from Basra . . . a violent and terrifying storm . . . the ship’s horn-call sounds through the gale . . . the legendary and monstrous Hût [whale] buffets the ship . . . the vessel is rent in two . . . the crew is thrown into the sea . . .


. . . washed up on the shore . . . Sindbad laments that he is marooned and daydreams . . . awoken by the procession of a village band . . . a familiar melody but with a foreboding, bellicose ring . . . he remembers his home, Baghdad, and hopes it is well . . .

Winged Men

. . . the villagers transform themselves into giant nocturnal birds . . . the sailor rides with them through the heavens . . . a harrowing fall from the sky . . . the horn-call sounds . . . Sindbad once more returns home to tell the tale

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14 minutes

Orchestra X

full orchestra: winds: 2222, piccolo, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone | brass: 4231 | 3 percussion, harp, timpani | strings

March 31, 2003, Zilkha Hall, Houston TX
Orchestra X | John Axelrod, director | Karen Wiley, soprano saxophone