One is fortunate to be a composer in our time. At least I think so. Throughout the history of Western music, from Gregorian Chant to John Cage and beyond, each new generation of composers has pushed forward the spectrum of musical composition, arriving now, by the end of the 20th century, at every conceivable (or conceived) extreme. Thus history has left us younger composers a tremendously rich culture to study and treasure. Our means of musical expression are so much more abundant. I am fortunate for yet another reason: Having grown up in China, having lived on the Tibetian border for eights years and having systematically studied Chinese and Asian music, I was inevitably enriched by the musical culture. Although my encounter with Western music started at an early age and has continued ever since, Chinese and Asian music is unquestionably my mother tongue, while I consider Western music culture my father tongue.
Prior to Majnun I have attempted different approaches of expression in my works. In H'UN (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976, I tried to utter the terror of the infamous 'Cultural Revolution' in China by building the entire work on the tuneless, dissonant interval of a minor second. In Three Chinese Love Songs, I told of my affection for the beauty of melodies and simple consonant harmonies. Majnun provided a perfect opportunity for me to explore both sides within one composition — it was a story that contained opposite extremes of dramatic emotions. And the fact that Majnun is an Asian legend has also made possible my search for a fitting harmonic language for the 'oriental' melodies.
There are many sides to the character of Majnun. In Arabic 'Majnun' means 'insane'; it also has a connotation of 'infatuated.' Majnun's tragedy is not only his ill-fated and unfulfilled love for Layla, but also the conflict between his love and his degradation by society which drives him to become an estranged and alienated individual.
The story of Majnun is symbolic. On one level, it is almost autobiographical, telling a love story between China and me, with Layla representing China and Majnun representing me. The metaphor has become especially meaningful since the recent turbulence in China during the early years of this decade. Majnun is a tragedy. It is also a love song.
— Bright Sheng
FIRST GOSSIP: Mezzo-Soprano
SECOND GOSSIP: Mezzo-Soprano
LAYLA'S MOTHER: Mezzo-Soprano
LAYLA'S FATHER: Baritone
IBN SALAM: Baritone
MAJNUN'S FATHER: Bass
Ensemble of Townspeople
While playing a children’s game, Layla and Majnun meet and fall in love. Layla’s parents observe what is happening and quickly separate them.
Majnun’s father goes to Layla’s father to seek Layla’s hand in marriage for his son; Layla’s father refuses. Grief and unattainable love drive Majnun to madness; he abandons his family. Two gossips narrate and re-enact the scene. Majnun meets them and then sings the love song that will become famous throughout the land.
From person to person, and village to village, Majnun’s song is carried. When it reaches Layla’s ears, immediately she hears its message for her.
Majnun’s father, who has found his son, persuades Majnun to accompany him on a pilgrimage to a holy place where he may perhaps be cured of his passionate madness. But upon reaching the site, Majnun prays only that his love may burn more brightly.
In overlapping scenes, Layla is married to Ibn Salam, a man of her parents’ choice. Salam courteously promises to respect her. Meanwhile, the gossips tell Majnun of Layla’s marriage.
Majnun receives a letter from Layla. In a quick sequence of events, Majnun reads Layla’s letter, replies to it, and Layla receives his answer. They meet in secret. In the moonlight garden, as the two gaze at each another in silence, they realize that the forces against them are too great. Majnun leaves.
Layla watches his departure and knows that life has ended. Her mother comes looking for her. Layla asks her mother to treat Majnun kindly when he comes to visit her tomb; Layla bids farewell to life and dies of a broken heart.
Majnun has a wonderful dream of a tree that grows before him with a bird — high in its branches — that flutters toward him carrying in its beak a jewel-like drop of light. The light falls into Majnun’s hand.
During Layla’s funeral, Majnun appears and sings the last of his love songs. He remains by the tomb, alone.