About this work
Composed in 1981, at the point when minimalism was moving toward audience-pleasing ethereality and away from the audience-alienating repetition of the 1960s and 1970s that gave birth to the genre, John Adams' Harmonium was, in fact, already looking ahead to the "post-minimalist" style that Adams would forge with works such as The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and the Violin Concerto (1993). With its alternating passages of throbbing minimal textures and dramatic lyricism, Harmonium hinted at a more exploratory vein. The piece sets three texts, one by the English poet John Donne and the other two by Emily Dickinson. The Donne piece, entitled Negative Love or The Nothing, is set to music that begins with simple repeated tones sung on single syllables. As the tones expand into chords, the syllables expand into the opening lines of the text. The polyrhythmic juxtapositions of twos against threes and threes against fours, stock elements of the minimalist palette, suddenly become even more obtuse, in order, paradoxically, to emphasize the declamation of the text. This situation creates a free space in which varied rhythms add new drama to the blocks of harmony and webs of accompaniment.
The middle movement sets Dickinson's pensive Because I Could Not Stop for Death. The suspension of time implicit in the poem is portrayed musically by long-suspended harmonies in the strings. The impetus, then, is no longer the rhythm of the text so much as the mood conjured up by the poetic discourse, a mood expressed by blocks of harmonies and slight dissonances suspended long enough to succumb to any resolution. As the poem progresses, so do the rhythmic tension and activity, carrying the work boldly and without pause into the final movement. The sensuality that -- except in the title -- is largely implicit in the third text, Wild Nights, is made explicit in the music. A sudden metric shift marks the movement's beginning, which brims with the sort of grandiose melodic-rhythmic complexes for which Adams is best known. As in the first movement, the declamation of the text lends rhythmic variety to the lines sung above the accompanying web. The exclamatory passages in the text provide opportunity for corresponding orchestral emphases and bursts of instrumental color. The first two stanzas of the poem, full of anticipation and Romantic anxiety, give way to more tranquilly sensual imagery: "Rowing in Eden -- Ah, the sea!" Rhythmic energy is reined in, and undulating incantations of "rowing" flow underneath the remainder of the text, drawing it to an idyllic close.