Of Scheherazade.2, John Adams says, ‘My intention was to write a piece which was funny and imaginative and exotic and provocative and virtuoso, but which also had something serious to say about a woman’s power.’ This may indeed be all the explanation the composition needs, but Adams insists that his audience should know exactly what is being conjured up.
It all started in Paris, at the Institut du monde arabe, where Adams attended a 2013 exhibition on the history of One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of folk tales in which Scheherazade plays the leading role while just managing to hold on to her head thanks to her special talent for thinking up cliffhangers. She has just been married off to a Persian king who has the habit of wedding one virgin after another and beheading them after a single night, so they can never besmirch his honour. Scheherazade escapes this grisly fate night after night as a result of her outstanding storytelling ability.
These ancient fairy tales are usually seen through a mist of exoticism and Romantic suspense, but Adams was shocked by the atrocities against women on which they are based, and which – let’s face it – are still a given in large parts of the world today.
Adams’s new version of this fairy tale (hence the title Scheherazade.2) tells a story in the four movements with descriptive titles which make up this ‘dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra’. A wise, young woman is pursued, tried and sentenced to death by True Believers, Men with Beards. A smouldering love scene (‘Maybe with a woman, who knows?’ quips Adams) interrupts the chase – a high point. Ultimately, her escape, flight and sanctuary are depicted. But has the heroine really escaped? Or has she attained a certain level of inviolability within herself?
It is remarkable that Adams intends to communicate his message by means of an instrumental work. (He himself says, ‘Words are not enough. That’s why I’m a composer.’) In any case, the genre does, by its very nature, place special demands on the performers. Leila Josefowicz, for whom Adams wrote the work, plays the leading role, both musically and theatrically: ‘What does it sound like to be sentenced to death? It’s my job to make that clear to the audience.’ She is Adams’s ideal heroine, acting both with and through her violin.
The structure of Scheherazade.2 is intriguing, even in the absence of words or a clear plot. It is not film music without a film, nor is it a puzzle (‘Is this supposed to be the bearded men running?’). The music is the film. The action is propelled by the violin, from beginning to end, with a minimum of respite. In addition, the cimbalom plays a prominent supporting role, its exotic character adding an unusual timbre to the orchestra.
Adams’s work shares only its title and the violin’s solo role with Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘first’ Scheherazade. The description of ‘dramatic symphony’ is a reference to Berlioz, the wild Romantic inventor of the form.