The Kennedy Center

Doctor Atomic Symphony

About the Work

John Adams Composer: John Adams
© Thomas May

Doctor Atomic Symphony

As was the case with Britten, John Adams's first major foray into the world of opera gave a quantum boost to his recognition as a composer. Adams had gradually been building up a following through a series of substantial concert works during the early 1980s, while he served as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony. But the premiere of Nixon in China in 1987 (his debut opera, co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center) advanced his fame by a new order of magnitude. Ever since, Adams has shown remarkable versatility in composing for stage and concert hall alike.

Doctor Atomic Symphony is a recent example that straddles both realms. Its offers a purely orchestral perspective on the composer's opera Doctor Atomic, which was originally staged by San Francisco Opera in 2005. Unlike the Four Sea Interludes, however, Doctor Atomic Symphony involves much more than a stitching together of self-contained extracts from the opera score. Doctor Atomic's early performances led Adams to realize that certain ideas in the orchestral score seemed to be cut short and underdeveloped. This was largely the result of dramaturgical necessity, whereby the action onstage had to take priority. Composing Doctor Atomic Symphony reinforced his understanding that "symphonic logic and operatic logic are two completely different species."

Above all, the new Symphony followed a trajectory different from that of the opera: one that is self-contained rather than dictated by dramatic concerns. The Symphony unfolds in a single movement, its timeline independent from that of the opera. As a precedent for the sustained, single-movement structure, Adams refers to the Seventh Symphony of Sibelius—a work he says has exerted "an immense effect on my compositional thinking."

Yet the harrowing nature of the subject matter that originally inspired this music resonates through the newer orchestral manifestation; if anything, it becomes even more concentrated. Doctor Atomic presents an unflinching drama that explores our capacity to harness creative genius for purposes of destruction, as epitomized by the first successful testing of the atomic bomb. The two-act opera climaxes in the final countdown before the detonation itself, which took place during the summer of 1945 at the "Trinity" test site in the New Mexico desert.

Using "found" texts collated by Adams's long-term collaborator, Peter Sellars—ranging from government meeting minutes to the metaphysical poetry of John Donne—the opera focuses on the tense period culminating in the epochal Trinity test. Its pivotal character is the immensely cultivated physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), who supervised the Los Alamos project. Although rooted in familiar history, the opera explores the mythic, universal implications of what happened during that fateful summer. Indeed, one biographer aptly termed Oppenheimer an "American Prometheus." Adams explains that the appeal such subjects offer a composer resides in "their power as archetypes, their ability to summon up in a few choice symbols the collective psyche of our time."

Doctor Atomic Symphony starts off with an apocalyptic jangle of darkly ominous, shard-like harmonies—music drawn from the Overture. The opera's score features an electronic soundscape, which Adams omits in the Symphony. Still, the Varèse-inspired, alien environment conjured by the former is echoed by the purely acoustic resources Adams uses here. Coils of dissonance—underscored by timpani and eerie fanfares—seem to proclaim a secular day of judgment. This "desert music" stands in stark contrast to the ecstatic, sea-inspired meditations of The Dharma at Big Sur.

Following is a section drawn from the opera's second-act "Panic" scene (lasting over half the Symphony's length). This scene takes place during the night, just hours before the bomb is to be tested. A powerful electrical storm is whipping across the desert, threatening the hoisted bomb. As the countdown approaches, General Leslie Groves, Trinity's Army commander, refuses to consider further delay, while the dire consequences of a possible mishap trigger debate. Adams's frenzied rhythms and anxious pauses parse varieties of nervousness. Certain instruments assume the roles of particular characters in Doctor Atomic. A barking, gruffly insistent trombone, for example, impersonates General Groves. We also hear a counterweight to the military strains in the music associated with Pasqualita, a maid to the Oppenheimers, whose own anxiety during this fateful night leads her to invoke a ritual from her Tewa Indian heritage. A trumpet meanwhile carries the voice of Oppenheimer himself in the symphony's final section. In the opera this is the emotionally stirring music that closes the first act and has become the opera's musical signature. It depicts the poetry-loving physicist in an agony of self-doubt as he delivers a soliloquy, its text taken from one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets: in fact, the sonnet that served as Oppenheimer's source when he christened the test site "Trinity" ("Batter my heart, three-person'd God"). In alternating tempos, a frantically punctuated pounded ostinato is offset by a solemn, neo-baroque elegy to end the Symphony on a note of humanist melancholy.