John Adams (1947 -)

Harmonielehre (1985) (40')

In an interview for the June 2008 issue of Gramophone John Adams says, “I don’t think you can be a great composer unless you have a feeling for harmony.” These words may reflect his intentions for composing Harmonielehre. The title is in German, meaning “treatise on harmony.” It is curious that an American composer writes a piece of music and names it using words in a foreign language without referring to English equivalents. The title derives from a music theory textbook of the same name by Arnold Schönberg, a progressive composer who had a keen interest in atonality and developed the twelve-tone technique in the early twentieth century. Adams had a certain degree of respect for Schönberg, with whom Adams’ composition teacher at Harvard, Leon Kirchner, studied in the 1940s. Through Kirchner Adams came to appreciate Schönberg’s serious attitude toward creating music. At the same time, however, for Adams Schönberg is a sort of evil figure who destroyed classical music. Adams says, “It was with Schönberg that the ‘agony of modern music’ had been born, and it was no secret that the audience for classical music during the twentieth century was rapidly shrinking, in no small part because of the aural ugliness of so much of the new work being written.”

Adams’ Harmonielehre was composed between 1984 and 1985. It premiered on March 21, 1985 in San Francisco, with Edo de Waart conducting the San Francisco Symphony. The work is written for a large orchestra, calling for four flutes (the second, third, and fourth doubling piccolo), three oboes (the third doubling English horn), four clarinets (the third and fourth doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons, contrabassoon, four French horns, four trumpets, three trombones, two tubas, timpani and a variety of percussion instruments, piano, celesta, two harps, and strings. It consists of three movements, of which the second and the third are titled “The Anfortas Wound” and “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie”. According to Adams, the composition “marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism.” The opening movement begins with a repeatedly played single chord, which comes back towards the end of the movement. One of the two climatic points of the second movement is in the composer’s words, “an obvious homage to Mahler’s last, unfinished symphony.” The third movement is inspired by a dream that Adams had about his infant daughter, whom he had nicknamed “Quackie.”

[Akira Ishii]