Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive

Sheherazade painted by Sophie G. Anderson.

Sheherazade was a sex slave. She had no rights, not even the right to live. What kept her safe from her murderous husband was her intelligence and her imagination. Night after night she would tell Sultan Rashid a tale and thus live one more day. A smart woman countering a violent man – what a timely subject. What a timely composition. What a fantastic piece of music.

Inspired by “Arabian Nights” in Paris

Upon a joint commission of the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, John Adams wrote “Sheherazade.2” for the violinist Leila Josefowicz. It saw its premiere in March 2015. A visit to an exhibition related to “The Arabian Nights” at the Arab World Institute in Paris inspired Adams to take up this oriental tale, that we have already met in a post on Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem “Sheherazade”.

Adams apparently was struck by the casual brutality toward women that lies at the base of many of the tales and the daily abuse of women in our times. Staying alive not being a basic right, but merely the result of individual smartness gave him the “idea of a dramatic symphony in which the principal character role is taken by the solo violin – and she would be Sheherazade.” The symphony loosely follows the development of the tale in four movements that Adams characterizes as a set of provocative images: I. Tale of the Wise Young Woman/ Pursuit by the True Believes II. A Long Desire III. Sheherazade and the Men with Beards IV. Escape, Flight and Sanctuary.

A masterful orchestration

I would like to highlight three elements that strike me as particularly impressive: First there are the solo violin themes starkly contrasting with the orchestra accompaniment illustrating the fragility of Sheherazade’s situation in an overly hostile environment. Then the orchestration: Adams uses a cimbalon and two harps to add a distinctive oriental touch to the music and emphasizing the tense moments in the tale. Third, the alliance of classical symphonic techniques with modern composing techniques relying on dissonant elements.

The American-Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz has stepped forward as passionate advocacy of contemporary music for the violin. A critic said that her sharp-edged style is particularly well suited for the solo part in “Sheherazade.2”. I agree. Strongly! She has recorded the piece with the St. Louis Symphony.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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One thought on “Sheherazade – Only Smart Women Survive”

  1. Sheherazade: You have touched on one of my pet subjects – folk fairy tales. In actual fact, Sheherazade is not a “sex slave”. She has a choice. She asks her father, the Vizir, to give her in marriage to the King because she feels it is her duty to save women. She has devised her ruse before she marries. Moreover, unlike Blue-Beard, there is a back story to the King’s murders. At the beginning of the story, he discovers that his brother’s wife and his own wife are cheating on them. So he vows revenge. I wrote something about this a few years ago:

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