Scheherazade in a Man’s World: Feminism, Classical Music and Scheherazade.2

Posted on March 30, 2016, 8:00 am
11 mins

“Well, it’s a man’s world.”

I’ve said those exact words to the students in my Introduction to Western Music class many times over. Usually this comes after some pushback, either from a 19-year-old Women’s Studies major or from my own conscience, that says “Hey, wait. We haven’t talked about a female composer all semester.” The nagging feeling arises about three-quarters of the way through the course, maybe accompanied by peripheral plans to mention Clara Schumann or Fanny Mendelssohn, but even their surnames mark them as afterthoughts–the relations of more famous husbands or brothers.

To alleviate this, I create a 20-minute lecture–why do we never give more lengthy time slots or even, God forbid, an entire lecture devoted to this subject?–on female composers and why we don’t teach them. How the history books left their manuscripts to languish and turn to dust, how no orchestra would perform music composed by the “fairer sex,” how female music-making has been historically confined to plunking sweet domestic piano ditties or dances with the sole purpose of entertaining potential suitors.

Without the prominence of female composers, you have to look deeper into the canon to find the feminine. But when you do, it’s worth it. This is why I adore opera, I tell my class; you get all the Strong Female Characters, and a whole slew of weak ones too, often with the bizarre gloss of being created, crafted and composed entirely by men. Carmen’s brazen sexuality and its resulting destruction; Lucia’s break from the patriarchal forces surrounding her, lashing out and turning inward; Mozart’s leading ladies, light-heartedly cunning and clever.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll come across the feminine mystique woven into the score of a symphony, characterized by seductive high instrumentation or a raunchy witches’ dance, safely confined to a movement or a theme. In the rare cases when they dominate, it’s either shamelessly autobiographical (Mahler’s love theme for Alma comes to mind) or a timeless character, one we’ve known since the cradle.

One Hundred and One Nights’ Scheherazade, a beacon of feminine strength and intelligence and the fight to stay alive, has emerged as one of the best-loved female figures in the symphonic realm, thanks to the nationalistic Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. His symphonic suite, egged on by an unfortunate bout of Orientalism at the time of its composition (1888), mirrors Scheherazade’s own storytelling, with movements entitled “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” and “The Young Prince and The Young Princess.” However, this effectively renders the horror of Scheherazade’s situation–spin a good yarn every night or be beheaded the next morning–into nothing more than an ancillary curiosity, something that can be exploited into the admittedly glorious feat of Scheherazade‘s orchestration.

John Adams sees the problem here. And with his recent composition Scheherazade.2, which just received its west coast premiere at the Seattle Symphony on March 17, he tries to fix it.

A quick note about the composer: Adams is not a dead white man, but he’s certainly an older white man, Ivy-educated and loaded with privilege. It takes a little coming to terms with the fact that symphonic music in 2016 remains in a place where female characters are still primarily given life by male composers. Despite this, there is a sense of progress–Adams’ Scheherazade is decidedly strong, struggling and victorious, a total firecracker and a true update (note the clever software-inspired title) to Rimsky-Korsakov’s exoticized narrator.

Like the Russian composer before him, Adams casts Scheherazade as a violin, constructing the piece as a concerto despite its Adams-approved designation of “dramatic symphony.” Violinist Leila Josefowicz, for whom the piece was composed, played under John Adams’ baton at this particular performance. (Though it doesn’t do to dwell on exteriors, Josefowicz was certainly playing into the character with her appearance–short hair slicked back, brogues, trousers, and a filmy short-sleeved top with a cape detail. This is your 21st-century Scheherazade, eschewing sleeveless silk gowns for comfort and badassery.)

Leila Josefowicz. Photo by Chris Lee.

Violinist Leila Josefowicz. Photo by Chris Lee.

Adams and Josefowicz are natural collaborators, her modern and precise technique perfectly embodying his unique musical language. Adams tends towards large-scale pieces with few themes or hummable melodies to speak of; instead, vast soundscapes and polytonal expanses are coupled with jarring time changes and intense leaping phrases in sections that are less directional and more complex sonic exploration. Like in his operas, Adams is extraordinarily adept at creating character through instrumentation and musical topics, and the brutality of many of the male characters–“True Believers,” “Men with Beards”–is horrifically evident through the use of ambling low strings, hunting and tracking down our heroine, in contrast to Josefowicz’s scurrying, spunky Scheherazade. Throughout the piece, one can practically see the struggle, the violence, the male need to control and capture and possess the vibrant storyteller.

Coming off the first movement (“Tale of the Wise Young Woman–Pursuit by the True Believers”), a violent jolt takes us into the Love Scene, as rocky and unexpected as any talk of “love” in this story should be. A slow, disjointed melody in the bass is punctuated by brass, giving way to polyrhythmic layering; softer chord clusters lead in Josefowicz for the first time, a melody of pure wonderment, folding in and out of the lush neo-Romantic orchestral wash in a tender (if tonally unsettling) lyricism.

“Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” (wherein Scheherazade is condemned to death, despite her tender feminine protestations) and “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary” close out the piece, a monument of orchestral color and character. Scheherazade.2 is teeming with extended techniques: Vibraphones bowed on the edge of their bars, orchestral screams, and an unbelievable production of sound from the strings almost like an insect swarm–vaguely pitched, but mostly equal parts clatter and screech.

Josefowicz embodies this particular Scheherazade with a vital urgency–she is as light on her instrument’s strings as the storyteller needs to be on her feet, cleverly maneuvering Adams’ difficult passages like hidden pathways in a bazaar. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, out in massive force, did great justice to the untraditional techniques and soundscapes, and Adams’ conducting–spry, precise and almost necessarily non-emotive–drove Scheherazade.2 expertly through to the piece’s high, subtly victorious conclusion.

Adams’ conducting prowess was able to fully shine with the rest of the program, continuing to an Elgar Pomp and Circumstance (No. 3 in C minor) that was so forcefully tonal it almost felt dissonant coming after Scheherazade.2. The march achieved an orchestral fullness that Adams chose not to employ in his own composition, but the conductor was clearly reveling in the strong military themes, guiding the SSO with joyful and animated conducting.

The final piece of the evening, Respighi’s Pines of Rome (composed in 1924 and perhaps known best in popular culture for its appearance in Fantasia 2000, accompanied by flying whales) allowed Adams to fully exploit his abilities as a conductor and artistic director. The overall effect of this performance was one of colossal motion, both as a linearly constructed work, with rich driving passages, and by the literal movement onstage. Trumpet soloists walked into the wings to perform their passages from backstage, organists meandered on and off to join in the more exultant sections, and a flurry of confusion and delight hit the audience with the sudden appearance of pre-recorded birdsong. The score, filled with orchestral color that alternates between shimmering brilliance and almost overbearing triumph, lends itself well to any conductor. But the SSO, who performed this piece with exquisite technique, responded perfectly to Adams’ energy and expressive conducting (batonless on the more emotional passages), resulting in a breathtaking performance worthy of the lengthy standing ovation.

Classical music is still a man’s world. We see it on the stage, with the appalling dearth of female conductors, and in the administration world, laden with male artistic directors. And though the conversation is shifting–both in terms of what is considered classical music, and how young (sometimes female!) composers are changing the landscape–it is shifting slowly, as donors and audience members hold on tightly to their First Viennese School composers, resisting change for the sake of comfort and outward appearances. But for the rest of us, who choose not to be blind to the complete mismatch of performing these works in a more progressive society, there are the small victories: the joy of new music, an empowered female character, and John Adams, composing a gender-conscious rendition of a centuries-old tale.

Claire Biringer is a Seattle-based music lover, educator and writer. She holds an MA in Music History from University of Washington, where her primary research involved contemporary opera and its social implications. She enjoys using music and writing to build communities and broaden minds.