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John Adams

Publisher: AMP

Harmonielehre (1985)
Publisher
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Category
Orchestra
Sub Category
Large Orchestra
Year Composed
1985
Duration
40 Minutes
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Score Score

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
    Conductor
    Edo de Waart
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    Sir Simon Rattle
  • Ensemble
    San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    John Adams
    Nonesuch:
  • G. Schirmer / AMP:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    Sir Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    Ransom Wilson, Christopher Warren-Green, Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Nonesuch:
  • Conductor
    Sir Simon Rattle
    Emi Classics:
  • Col Legno:
  • Ensemble
    City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
    Conductor
    Sir Simon Rattle
    Recommends:
  • Ensemble
    Royal Scottish Naitonal Orchestra
    Conductor
    Peter Oundjian
    chandos:
Performances
Date
Title
  • 24 APR 2014
    Teatro de la Maestranza, Sevilla
    Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla
    Pedro Halffter, conductor

    Other Dates:
    25 April - Teatro de la Maestranza, Sevilla
  • 09 APR 2014
    Basel, Switzerland
    Basel Symphony Orchestra
    Dennis Russell Davies, conductor

    Other Dates:
    24 April - Cadogan Hall, London
    25 April - Basingstoke, Great Britain
    27 April - Cambridge, Great Britain
    29 April - Cardiff, Great Britain
  • 09 APR 2014
    Basel, Switzerland
    Sinfonieorchester Basel
    Matt Haimovitz, violincello; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor
  • 21 FEB 2014
    Auditorio Nacional de Música, Madrid.
    Orquesta Nacional de España
    Cuarteto Attacca; John Adams, conductor

    Other Dates:
    22,23 February - Auditorio Nacional de Música, Madrid.
  • 15 OCT 2013
    St John Smiths Square, London
    Kensington Symphony Orchestra
  • 05 SEP 2013
    Houston, TX
    Houston Ballet Foundation
    Ermanno Florio, conductor

    Other Dates:
    6-15 September - Houston, TX
  • 29 JUN 2013
    College Park, MD
    University Of Maryland
    Alan Pierson, conductor
  • 03 JUN 2013
    Charleston, SC
    Spoleto Festival USA
    John Kennedy, conductor
  • 17 MAY 2013
    Darmstadt, Germany
    Orchester des Staatstheaters Darmstadt
    Martin Lukas Meister, conductor
  • 13 MAY 2013
    Karlsruhe, Germany
    Badische Staatskapelle
  • 08 MAR 2013
    United Kingdom
    Royal Scottish National Orchestra
    Peter Oundjian, conductor

    Other Dates:
    9 March - United Kingdom
  • 08 FEB 2013
    Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
    Royal Scottish National Orchestra
    Peter Oundjian, conductor

    Other Dates:
    9 February - Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
  • 08 FEB 2013
    Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
    Royal Scottish National Orchestra
    Peter Oundjian, conductor

    Other Dates:
    9 February - Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
  • 07 FEB 2013
    Nashville, TN
    Nashville Symphony
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor

    Other Dates:
    8,9 February - Nashville, TN
  • 01 FEB 2013
    Denver, CO
    Colorado Symphony Association
    Peter Oundjian, conductor

    Other Dates:
    2,3 February - Denver, CO
  • 17 JAN 2013
    Barbican, London
    London Symphony Orchestra
    John Adams, conductor
  • 27 SEP 2012
    Brazil
    Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado
    Lawrence Renes, conductor

    Other Dates:
    28,29 September - Brazil
  • 27 SEP 2012
    Brazil
    Orquestra Sinfonica do Estado
    Lawrence Renes, conductor

    Other Dates:
    28,29 September - Brazil
  • 26 SEP 2012
    festival musica
    Palais de la Musique et des Congrès, Strasbourg, France
    Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg
    Marko Letonja, conductor
  • 15 SEP 2012
    Argentina
    Organizacion Musical Sudamericana
    Valeriano Lanchas; Sergei Sichkov; Baldur Brönnimann, conductor
  • 07 SEP 2012
    New Haven, CT
    Yale School of Music
    Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • 07 SEP 2012
    New Haven, CT
    Yale School of Music
    Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • 07 SEP 2012
    New Haven, CT
    Yale School of Music
    Peter Oundjian, conductor
  • 14 JUL 2012
    London UK
    The Bold Tendencies Orchestra
  • 11 MAY 2012
    Karlsruhe, Germany
    Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe

    Other Dates:
    19,25 May; 15 June - Karlsruhe, Germany
  • 13 APR 2012
    Condell Park NSW 2200, Australia
    Hong Kong Philharmonic
    Edo de Waart, conductor

    Other Dates:
    14 April - Condell Park NSW 2200, Australia
  • 19 NOV 2011
    "Siegfried" Ballet by Peter Breuer
    Karlsruhe, Germany
    Badische Staatskapelle
    Christoph Gedschold, conductor

    Other Dates:
    22,25 November; 8 December; 19 January 2012 - Karlsruhe, Germany
  • 10 NOV 2011
    Cologne, Germany
    WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
    Kristjan Järvi, conductor

    Other Dates:
    12 November - Essen, Germany
  • 04 NOV 2011
    Bratislava, Slovakia
    Melos Tehos Festival
  • 30 SEP 2011
    Milwaukee, WI
    Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra
    Edo de Waart, conductor

    Other Dates:
    1 October - Milwaukee, WI

Reviews
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,12/15/1995
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,1/1/0001
Adams' substantial HARMONIELEHRE is a work of magnitude with a sophisticated construction throughout. The piece verges on minimalism, but it touches almost as much on a melodic Romanticism. [He] is especially accomplished in his use of pedal point; [and] they are excellent foils to the repetition. [But] this is not a stridently repetitious composition! The rhythms are varied and carefully constructed...[with] exciting ascending chords in different tempos.
Joseph Pehrson, New Music Connoisseur,1/1/0001
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