Harmonielehre, John Adams

John Adams today is perhaps the most successful living composer in the United States, known primarily for his modern, minimalist-inflected operas – Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) – and high-profile commissions like the 9/11 tribute On the Transmigration of Souls (2002). But in 1985, the year of Harmonielehre, Adams was still a young, sideburned and open-shirted American composer, abandoning a twelve-year stint teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and enduring an eighteen-month bout of writer’s block. Harmonielehre is the culmination of that period of frustration, and its power derives in part from a feeling of long-awaited breakthrough, an outbreak of momentary inspiration.

The sources of this inspiration are varied: Adams describes a submersion in the writing of Carl Jung at the time, and a surreal dream of “watch[ing] a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket”, but most important in understanding the form of Harmonielehre is Adams’s recognition and simultaneous rejection of the serialist Schoenbergian tradition, and consequent embrace of the century’s tonal masters: early Schoenberg himself (c.f. 1911’s Gurrelieder), Jean Sibelius, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler.

Having, as Adams put it, “sided with the Philistines”, Harmonielehre – from the German term for “study of harmony” – treats this melodic tradition without irony, and indulges moments of earnest tonality (amidst, it must be admitted, much dissonance and minimalist soundscape). Most fitting is the composer’s own description, that Harmonielehre “marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism.” The alchemic cleavage of modern technique and romantic sensibility is made all the more striking by the piece’s tripartite movement structure, with each of the three operating in a distinct musical idiom.

The first (unnamed) movement is propelled mechanically at first with pulsing woodwinds and weighty horns partly reminiscent of the minimalist work Music for a Large Ensemble (1978), composed only a few years prior by Steve Reich. But that minimalist aesthetic is quickly subsumed within the swelling orchestration that follows the introduction of a searing cello-led melody. The second movement, however – The Anfortas Wound, taken from the legend of medieval king with wounds that could never heal – is immediately melodic, though meditatively so (à la Sibelius – and Adams has indeed noted his debt to the Finn’s Fourth Symphony). But the result is far more static and moody, generating a sense of tense unease that groans into two separate dissonant climaxes without resolution. In juxtaposition with the second, the third and final movement – Meister Eckhardt and Quackie – feels like an unshackling, perhaps a mirror of the Adams’s creative breakthrough, and in the composer’s words “as airy, serene and blissful as The Anfortas Wound is earthbound, shadowy and bleak.” The pervasive sense of unencumbered flight closes with a climax of entirely defiant euphoria.

Below is a recording of Harmonielehre accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Movement I: immediate introduction of the leitmotif rhythmic pattern at 0:00 with heavy E Minor chords, note the minimalist techniques (woodwind and pizzicato pulses after 0:29, brass at 4:39 and especially 6:21). Key Cello melody at 6:30, orchestra swells after 6:56 (but note continuing minimalist pulses below). High-low contrast emerges between melodic surface and rhythmic undertones. Final swell after 13:22 demonstrates Adams’s trademark sense of rhythmic acceleration, and primary use of brass (as opposed to strings) as the climactic motor (seen also, for example, in The Death of Klinghoffer’s first Chorus).

Movement II: far more conventional (and melodic) use of strings at 0:16, steady climax after 5:00 into the strong dissonance of 5:59 (again, note use of brass). Second climax culminates at 8:52 and into the col legno strings and brass of 9:04. Neither climax resolves the unease (the timbre of the violins at 9:25 assure us of that).

Movement III: immediately conveys an atmosphere with the airiest of flutes and celesta at 0:00, joined by strings at 0:52. Sense of motion also created through timbral shifts (particularly the interplay of strings and woodwinds). Rhythmic turn at 4:30-4:40, into aggressively-paced pulsing like that of The Chairman Dances (1985, the same year) and late 1970s Reich. The skitter of strings at 8:16 and punches of trombones after 8:35 mark the beginning of the final and exultant brass-led climax.

The recording above is the original recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for Nonesuch in 1985. Equally commendable is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle for EMI (which also includes The Chairman Dances and Two Fanfares).

Anyone who enjoys Harmonielehre would no doubt also take pleasure in Adams’ The Chairman Dances, composed in the same year. For a more ironic take on melodic power, see his earlier Grand Pianola Music (1982).Any look at the minimalist movement must also acknowledge the singular influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) and Music for a Large Ensemble (1978).

Artwork: Terre Écossaise, Max Ernst

by Simon Torracinta