The Kennedy Center


About the Work

John Adams Composer: John Adams
© Richard Freed

Harmonielehre was composed between February 1984 and March of the following year, under a commission from Meet the Composer; the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra gave the premiere under Edo de Waart on March 21, 1985, less than three weeks after the score was completed, and recorded the work for Nonesuch a few days later. The National Symphony Orchestra's only performance of Harmonielehre prior to the present ones was conducted by Andrew Massey on June 22, 1988.

The score specifies 4 flutes and 3 piccolos; 3 oboes and English horn; 4 clarinets and 2 bass clarinets; 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, 2 marimbas, vibraphone, xylophone, high and low suspended cymbals, small crash cymbals, bell tree, crotales (played alternately with mallets or a bow), glockenspiel, 2 tam-tams, tubular bells, triangle, piano, celesta, 2 harps, and strings (violins divided into four sections, violas and cellos into two sections each). Duration, 40 minutes.

Early in his creative career John Adams was always identified as a minimalist, along with such senior colleagues as Steve Reich and Philip Glass. While that designation still applies, Adams now is more likely to be classified simply as one of the outstanding composers of his generation, as well as one of the most productive—and one whose music has earned him not only recognition but an enthusiastic following on the part of a broad international audience. Harmonielehre, his last big work before the opera Nixon in China, and is still his most expansively proportioned work for orchestra alone; it is also a conspicuous landmark in his long and fruitful association with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

Adams was that orchestra's composer-in-residence from 1979 to 1985. but that orchestra continued to perform his works frequently; in 1991 the composer himself presided over the premiere of his El Dorado, another San Francisco SO commission, and ten years later the orchestra introduced yet another Adams work it had commissioned: El Niño, with Ken Nagano conducting. Later that same year, 2001, the San Franciscans announced a "ten-year John Adams commissioning project," calling for four commissioned works within that time frame. The first of these, My Father Knew Charles Ives, commissioned for a European tour, was given its premiere in San Francisco on April 30, 2003, under Michael Tilson Thomas. The opera A Flowering Tree, commissioned jointly with Vienna's "New Crowned Hope" Festival, New York's Lincoln Center, London's Barbican Centre and the Berlin Philharmonic, was introduced by the Vienna Philharmonic last November, with Adams himself conducting. Of the two remaining works, the last is to have its premiere during the San Francisco orchestra's 100th season, 2011-2012.

Harmonielehre was the last of Adams's San Francisco commissions actually introduced there during his tenure as composer-in-residence, nearly twenty-two years ago. In the fall of 1986 the work brought the composer second prize in that year's Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards. The title is taken from that of a book by the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who published it in 1911. The work is laid out in three substantial sections, the first of which is headed simply Part I, while Parts II and III have descriptive titles indicating programmatic content.

Adams has explained some of that dream-derived imagery, and has also acknowledged—actually pointed out, in fact—references to the Fourth Symphonies of Mahler and Sibelius [the latter dating from the same year as Schoenberg's book] in Parts II and III, respectively, as well as the Mahler Tenth at the end of Part II. Eight years ago Adams updated his own remarks on Harmonielehre for the Nonesuch set in which all the recordings of his works for that label up to that time were collected on ten compact discs. This uniquely authoritative commentary is reprinted here with the kind permission of Nonesuch Records, a Warner Music Group company.

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, which 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 . . . been a [pupil] 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 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 nineteenth-century Individualism, . . . 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" [a phrase coined by Henry Pleasants as the title of a widely circulated book published in 1955] had been born, and it was no secret that the audience for 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 György Ligeti have borne both Schoenberg's ethics and his aesthetics into our own time, and the immanence of his thought in present-day university life and European music 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 [1992] the busy, hyperactive style of Schoenberg's own early work is placed in a salad spinner with Hollywood cartoon music. In [the opera] 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 Gurre-Lieder 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 [my] Grand Pianola Music [chamber orchestra, 1982] or Music Nixon in China [1987], 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 opening and close of the movement are the musical counterparts of a dream image I had shortly before starting the piece. In the dream I 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 I was still deeply involved in the study of C.G. Jung's writings, particularly his examination of medieval mythology. I was strongly affected by Jung's discussion of the character of Anfortas, the king whose wounds could never be healed. As a critical archetype, Anfortas [a different version of the name Amfortas, familiar to us from Wagner's opera Parsifal] symbolized a condition of sickness of the soul that curses it with a feeling of impotence and depression. In the slow, moody movement entitled THE ANFORTAS WOUND a long, elegiac trumpet solo floats over a delicately shifting screen of minor triads which 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, or cradle song, that is as airy, serene and blissful as "The Anfortas Wound" is earthbound, shadowy and bleak. The Zappaesque title refers to a dream I had shortly after the birth of our daughter Emily, who was briefly dubbed "Quackie" during her infancy. In the dream, she rode perched on the shoulder of the medieval Meister Eckhardt, as they hovered among the heavenly bodies like figures painted on the high ceilings of old cathedrals. The tender berceuse gradually picks up speed and mass . . . and culminates in a tidal wave of brass and percussion over a pedal point on E-flat major.

John Adams

[Eckhardt von Hochheim, a Dominican monk, ca. 1260-1327, known to posterity as Meister Eckhardt—though usually without the "d"—and regarded as the father of German mysticism, was remembered in Patrick McDonnell's comic strip Mutts last November, in a series of pre-Thanksgiving drawings illustrating his maxim, "If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice."--RF]