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John Adams

Publisher: AMP

Harmonielehre (1985)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
40 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Adams Harmonielehre (1985)
Composer Note:

Harmonielehre is roughly translated as "the book of harmony" or "treatise on harmony." It is the title of a huge study of tonal harmony, part textbook, part philosophical rumination, that Arnold Schoenberg published in 1911 just as he was embarking on a voyage into unknown waters, one in which he would more or less permanently renounce the laws of tonality. My own relationship to Schoenberg needs some explanation. Leon Kirchner, with whom I studied at Harvard, had himself been a student of Schoenberg in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Kirchner had no interest in the serial system that Schoenberg had invented, but he shared a sense of high seriousness and an intensely critical view of the legacy of the past. Through Kirchner I became highly sensitized to what Schoenberg and his art represented. He was a "master" in the same sense that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were masters. That notion in itself appealed to me then and continues to do so. But Schoenberg also represented to me something twisted and contorted. He was the first composer to assume the role of high-priest, a creative mind whose entire life ran unfailingly against the grain of society, almost as if he had chosen the role of irritant. Despite my respect for and even intimidation by the persona of Schoenberg, I felt it only honest to acknowledge that I profoundly disliked the sound of twelve-tone music. His aesthetic was to me an overripening of 19th-century Individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar. It was with Schoenberg that the "agony of modern music" had been born, and it was no secret that the audience classical music during the twentieth century was rapidly shrinking, in no small part because of the aural ugliness of so much of the new work being written.

It is difficult to understand why the Schoenbergian model became so profoundly influential for classical composers. Composers like Pierre Boulez and Gyorgy Ligeti have borne both the ethic and the aesthetic into our own time, and its immanence in present day university life and European musical festivals is still potent. Rejecting Schoenberg was like siding with the Philistines, and freeing myself from the model he represented was an act of enormous will power. Not surprisingly, my rejection took the form of parody…not a single parody, but several extremely different ones. In my Chamber Symphony the busy, hyperactive style of Schoenberg’s own early work is placed in a salad spinner with Hollywood cartoon music. In The Death of Klinghoffer the priggish, disdainful Austrian Woman describes how she spent the entire hijacking hiding under her bed by singing in a Sprechstimme to the accompaniment of a Pierrot-like ensemble in the pit.

My own Harmonielehre is parody of a different sort in that it bears a "subsidiary relation" to a model (in this case a number of signal works from the turn of the century like Gurrelieder and the Sibelius Fourth Symphony), but it does so without the intent to ridicule. It is a large, three-movement work for orchestra that marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism. It was a conceit that could only be attempted once. The shades of Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy, and the young Schoenberg are everywhere in this strange piece. This is a work that looks at the past in what I suspect is "postmodernist" spirit, but, unlike Grand Pianola Music or Nixon in China, it does so entirely without irony.

The first part is a seventeen-minute inverted arch form: high energy at the beginning and end, with a long, roaming "Sehnsucht" section in between. The pounding e minor chords at the beginning and end of the movement are the musical counterparts of a dream image I’d shortly before starting the piece. In the dream I’d watched a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket. At the time (1984-85) I was still deeply involved in the study of C. G. Jung’s writings, particularly his examination of Medieval mythology. I was deeply affected by Jung’s discussion of the character of Anfortas, the king whose wounds could never be healed. As a critical archetype, Anfortas symbolized a condition of sickness of the soul that curses it with a feeling of impotence and depression. In this slow, moody movement entitled "The Anfortas Wound" a long, elegiac trumpet solo floats over a delicately shifting screen of minor triads that pass like spectral shapes from one family of instruments to the other. Two enormous climaxes rise up out of the otherwise melancholy landscape, the second one being an obvious homage to Mahler’s last, unfinished symphony.

The final part, "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie" begins with a simple berceuse (cradlesong) that is as airy, serene and blissful as "The Anfortas Wound" is earthbound, shadowy and bleak. The Zappaesque title refers to a dream I’d had shortly after the birth of our daughter, Emily, who was briefly dubbed "Quackie" during her infancy. In the dream, she rides perched on the shoulder of the Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, as they hover among the heavenly bodies like figures painted on the high ceilings of old cathedrals. The tender berceuse gradually picks up speed and mass (not unlike "The Negative Love" movement of Harmonium) and culminates in a tidal wave of brass and percussion over a pedal point on E-flat major.

The recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony was made only three days after the world premiere in March of 1985. (I have since revised the ending.) Despite the daunting length and rhythmic complexity of the piece, both conductor and orchestra made a totally convincing representation of it, and the recording can testify to the rare instances when a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra create an inexplicable bond among each other.

 John Adams

  • Ensemble
    San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
    Edo de Waart
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle
  • Ensemble
    San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
    John Adams
  • G. Schirmer / AMP:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Ransom Wilson, Christopher Warren-Green, Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Nonesuch:
  • Conductor
    Sir Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Col Legno:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle
  • Ensemble
    Royal Scottish Naitonal Orchestra
    Peter Oundjian
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Simon Rattle
    Warner Classics:
  • Ensemble
    San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
    Michael Tilson Thomas
    San Francisco Symphony :
  • 02 MAY 2019
    räsonanz - Stifterkonzerte der Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung
    München, Germany
    London Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
  • 02 MAY 2019
    München, Germany
    London Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle, conductor
  • 01 MAY 2019
    Barbican Concert Hall, London, UK
    London Symphony Orchestra
    Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

    Other Dates:
    5 May - Barbican Concert Hall, London, UK
  • 26 JAN 2019
    Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
    Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
    Bramwell Tovey, conductor
  • 08 DEC 2018
    New World Center, Miami Beach, FL
    New World Symphony
    Bradley Lubman, conductor
  • 04 OCT 2018
    Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, TN
    Nashville Symphony
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

    Other Dates:
    7,6,5 October - Laura Turner Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville, TN
  • 18 SEP 2018
    Brno, Czech Republic
    Filharmonie Brno
    Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
  • 26 JAN 2018
    Powell Hall, St. Louis, MO
    St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
    David Robertson, conductor

    Other Dates:
    27 January - Powell Hall, St. Louis, MO
  • 12 JAN 2018
    Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, WI
    Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
    Edo de Waart, conductor

    Other Dates:
    13 January - Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, WI
  • 17 NOV 2017
    Rotterdam, The Netherlands
    Rotterdams Philarmonic Orchestra
    Robert Trevino , conductor
  • 17 NOV 2017
    Berlin, Germany
    Symphonieorchester der UdK Berlin
    Steven Sloane, conductor
  • 21 OCT 2017
    Colburn School of Performing Arts, Ambassador Auditorium, Pasadena, CA
    Colburn Chamber Orchestra
    Edo de Waart, conductor
  • 04 OCT 2017
    La Maison Symphonique, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
    Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal
    Adam Johnson, Kent Nagano, conductor

    Other Dates:
    5 October; 1,2,4 November - La Maison Symphonique, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 26 AUG 2017
    BBC Proms
    Bold Tendencies Multi-Storey Car Park, Peckham, London
    The Multi-Story Youth Choir and Orchestra
    Christopher Stark, conductor
  • 21 JUL 2017
    Künzelsau, Germany
    Würth Philharmoniker
    Kent Nagano, conductor
  • 22 JUN 2017
    Bochum, Germany
    Bochumer Symphoniker
    Steven Sloane, conductor

    Other Dates:
    23 June - Bochum, Germany
  • 18 JUN 2017
    Freiburg, Germany
    ORSO Philharmonic
    Wolfgang Roese, conductor
  • 04 APR 2017
    Hamburg, Germany
    New York Philharmonic
    Alan Gilbert, conductor
  • 02 APR 2017
    Barbican International Associate Residency
    Barbican, London, UK
    New York Philharmonic Orchestra
    Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Alan Gilbert, conductor
  • 09 MAR 2017
    New York, NY
    New York Philharmonic
    Alan Gilbert, conductor

    Other Dates:
    11,10 March - New York, NY
  • 02 MAR 2017
    Atlanta, GA
    Atlanta Symphony
    Robert Spano, conductor

    Other Dates:
    4 March - Atlanta, GA
  • 28 JAN 2017
    Royal Festival Hall, London
    London Philharmonic Orchestra
    Vladimir Jurowski, conductor
  • 28 JAN 2017
    Wien, Austria
    Radio Symphonie Orchester Wien
    Markus Stenz, conductor
  • 04 NOV 2016
    Kraków, Poland
    Orkiestra Filharmonii Krakowskiej
    Gabriel Chmura, conductor

    Other Dates:
    5 November - Filharmonia Krakowska Kraków POLAND
  • 23 SEP 2016
    Duisburg, Germany
    Duisburger Philharmoniker
    Ville matvejeff, conductor

    Other Dates:
    24 September - Duisburg, Germany
  • 15 SEP 2016
    Musikfest Berlin
    Berlin, Germany
    Berliner Philharmoniker
    John Adams, conductor

    Other Dates:
    16,17 September - Berlin, Germany
  • 12 MAY 2016
    Baltimore, MD
    Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
    John Adams, conductor
  • 15 APR 2016
    Nürnberg, Germany
    Staatsphilharmonie Nürnberg
    Pedro Halffter, conductor
  • 02 APR 2016
    Neubrandenburg, Germany
    Neubrandenburger Philharmonie
    Stefan Malzew, conductor
  • 19 MAR 2016
    Hammersmith Town Hall, London
    Fulham Symphony Orchestra

It might not be called a symphony, but Adams's 1985 work is one of the late 20th century's most significant and sophisticated examples of the form...

Adams's title comes from Schoenberg's great harmony textbook, an essential musical tome that gives you the keys not to a theory of composition-with-12-tones (Schoenberg's serialism in other words), but to tonal harmonic practice from Palestrina to Bruckner. In a way, it's a book that's proof positive of one of Schoenberg's maxims, that there's still a lot of great music to be written in C major. Adams's piece is an attempt to do just that (well, in E minor and E flat major…), yet as well as its passages that are clear love-songs to symphonic and Wagnerian late-romanticism, his Harmonielehre ("Harmony Lesson," composed in 1985 when Adams was in his late 30s), is full of surreal dreams and post-minimalist rhythms, glitter, and energy.
Tom Service, The Guardian,11/03/2014
The sleeper of the dance season may well be 'Harmonielehre,' Peter Martins's new ballet set to John Adams's music of the same title. As the eighth premiere in City Ballet's Diamond Project, 'Harmonielehre' [is] suggestive of a cosmic allegory.

Adams's [past] comments translate the title as a treatise on harmony, referring to a book by Schoenberg 'without intent to ridicule.' What is clear is that Martins's ballet is an ambitious work full of startling images that take off imaginatively from the composer's ideas. Martins has played especially with the lyricism that is in dialogue with the music's energetic pulse. The choreography has its own strange fascination, with Martins's use of insistent motifs...a cascade of dances amid the whirlwind energy of the music's rhythmic texture. There is a woman who dances bourrées. Another is constantly manipulated by two men, and a teenager is carried on a man's shoulder and rarely sets her bare feet on the floor.

It was a festive occasion...Mr. Adams stepped into the pit [and] conducted his own score. One of the [many] surprises is the combination of richly nuanced lighting and striking backdrops. The overall atmosphere resonates with echoes of nature's turbulence: muddy canyons and purple galaxies seen first from the sky and then the earth.
Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times,19/06/2000
It is probably premature to label John Adams' Harmonielehre a classic until the piece has been around long enough to stake a lasting claim to our attention. But Wednesday's magnificent performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony was a reminder of what a towering landmark this score is. Yes, the music is beautiful, subtle, dramatically forceful and exquisitely scored. But Harmonielehre also reaches beyond its 40-minute span to address larger issues of musical style and history. It does so with thrilling ambition and equally thrilling success.

Composed for the Symphony in 1985, when Adams was the orchestra's composer-in-residence, this three-movement work -- a symphony in all but name -- forges a language at once familiar and new. It manages nothing less than a rapprochement between the motoric repetitions and stripped-down harmonies of minimalism and the lushly textured emotionalism of the late Romantics.

...a listener can hear in just about every measure that the piece is an artistic breakthrough.

It's evident in the formal shape of the untitled first movement, in which a brisk, jangly minimalist episode is interrupted midway through by a burst of long, yearningly lyrical melodies, first from the cellos and then from the first violins.

It's evident in the slow movement, "The Anfortas Wound," with its anguished harmonies and huge climax of shrieking pain. And it's especially evident in the beatific energy and sense of relief in the final "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie," which find its way back to the piece's opening minimalist gestures with renewed vigor and optimism.

And as always with Adams, the orchestral writing is a miracle of resourceful invention. Repeatedly throughout the performance I found myself scanning the stage, desperately trying to deduce what combination of instruments had produced some piquant sonority or burst of tone color.
Joshua Kosman , San Francisco Chronicle,15/12/1995
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