John Adams


Recommended recording

Curated by Maryna Boiko, Primephonic Curator

About this work

Toward the end of his tenure (from 1982 to 1985) as composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony, John Adams endured a composer's block that lasted for over a year. Then he had a dream. In the dream, while driving over the San Francisco Bay Bridge, he saw a huge tanker in the bay, and the tanker ascended into the sky. This dream image translated itself musically into a series of loud, pounding E minor chords. With this as his beginning, Adams' block was gone, and, over the succeeding three months, he quickly created his orchestral work Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name which Adams defined as "a kind of allegory about quest for grace." The work's title refers to the famous 1911 book Die Harmonielehre by Arnold Schoenberg. While studying at Harvard in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Adams had worked with composer Leon Kirchner, who had been a student of Schoenberg's in Los Angeles in the 1940s. As a student, Adams was more interested in the Beatles and Miles Davis than in Schoenberg, who was lionized in the academic world, and he had to work very hard to shake Schoenberg's influence. Some of that struggle is evident in Harmonielehre, which combines some of the sound and procedures of minimalism with music very reminiscent of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Adams cites Schoenberg, along with Gustav Mahler, Jean Sibelius, and Claude Debussy, as important influences on this piece).

Those pounding E minor chords, blasted out by the orchestra, open Part I of the work, and the anger implicit in those chords lurks below the shimmering surface that emerges. A lush, slightly dissonant tune takes over, and the music becomes slow and languid even though the tension level remains high. The pounding chords return to close the movement. According to Adams, Part II, "The Anfortas Wound," is a meditation on "sickness and infirmity," both spiritual and physical. Taking the wounding of the Grail King Anfortas as its inspiration, the movement is slow and unsettled, and very dark. The music builds to a couple of angry crescendos, but the sense of malaise remains. That malaise is dispelled in Part III, "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie." Adams's image here is of the famed medieval mystic, floating through the air with the composer's daughter Emily (nicknamed Quackie as a child) and whispering to her the secret of grace and redemption. Here the textures are bright and shimmering, with Adams' characteristically transparent orchestration coming to the fore. Tuned percussion, swirling strings, and a brass-drenched climax close the work.