About this work
Virtually a large-scale symphony, Naïve and Sentimental Music is one of the most powerful and varied of the many orchestral compositions of one of America's best-known living composer. Its arching, soaring melodies seem part of a quest to reconcile the artist's battle between instinct and calculation. Few new works of its magnitude have been so instantly and widely accepted as Naïve and Sentimental. John Adams seems to love dichotomies. Commentators often note the split between his "trickster" works such as Grand Pianola Music and Fearful Symmetries and his introspective works (most especially The Wound Dresser). He composes at a retreat on land located ten miles from the ocean in Northern California, a place where the cool, coastal redwood fog climate abruptly meets the dry, hot inland coastal range.
The title of the work comes from Schiller's essay "Über naïve und sentimentalische Dichtung" (On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry), where "naïve" refers to poetic creation directly from within, without self-analysis or historical reference. The opposite, creation with constant personal second-guessing and conscious reference to the past, Schiller called sentimentalische. In general, the work involves a search for more of Schiller's naïveté. Adams has always been a "sentimental" composer; even his adoption of the naïve-sounding simplicity of his early minimalist style was a result of a decision based on historical awareness that the prevailing post-serial style was breaking up. But he seeks more spontaneity, naïveté, and in a sense portrays that search here. The first movement, sharing the title of the whole work and taking 18 minutes of the 45-minute work, starts with a beautiful naïve theme for flute above plucked harp and guitar. It has popular accents and a gentle, lightly swinging gait. Throughout the course of the movement, it goes through all sorts of emotional and dramatic changes, soaring and roaring. Its tendency to make sudden, wide leaps spontaneously keeps it fresh and often draws it into breathtaking high string lines. This is a highly dramatic movement that builds and builds. As Adams' friend and colleague Ingram Marshall wrote in the Nonesuch Records liner notes, "it's a trip." Adams himself adopted this metaphor in a letter written after he had heard the piece played by three different orchestras: "...a journey (with no known destination; the trip's the thing)...." Adams calls the second movement "Mother of the Man." Earlier, he had made an orchestral arrangement of the Berceuse élégiaque by Ferruccio Busoni, which that composer subtitled "Cradle Song of the Man at the Coffin of His Mother." Adams' music attempts to fill an empty feeling with a mostly successful effort to call music out of the strong emotions of that image. The finale, "Chain to the Rhythm," is in fact an essay in gathering rhythmic force that is ultimately released in an explosive coda. It is built from very small interlocking rhythmic cells and has a large percussion section delicately used for color until the earthquake of the final bars.