for orchestra (1984-85)

John Adams on Harmonielehre

Harmonielehre is roughly translated as “the book of harmony” or “treatise on harmony.” It is the title of a huge study of tonal harmony, part textbook, part philosophical rumination, that Arnold Schoenberg published in 1911 just as he was embarking on a voyage into unknown waters, one in which he would more or less permanently renounce the laws of tonality. My own relationship to Schoenberg needs some explanation. Leon Kirchner, with whom I studied at Harvard, had himself been a student of Schoenberg in Los Angeles during the 1940s. Kirchner had no interest in the serial system that Schoenberg had invented, but he shared a sense of high seriousness and an intensely critical view of the legacy of the past. Through Kirchner I became highly sensitized to what Schoenberg and his art represented. He was a “master” in the same sense that Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were masters. That notion in itself appealed to me then and continues to do so. But Schoenberg also represented to me something twisted and contorted. He was the first composer to assume the role of high-priest, a creative mind whose entire life ran unfailingly against the grain of society, almost as if he had chosen the role of irritant. Despite my respect for and even intimdation by the persona of Schoenberg, I felt it only honest to acknowledge that I profoundly disliked the sound of twelve-tone music. His aesthetic was to me an overripening of 19th century Individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar. It was with Schoenberg that the “agony of modern music” had been born, and it was no secret that the audience 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.

Young JA

It is difficult to understand why the Schoenbergian model became so profoundly influential for classical composers. Composers like Pierre Boulez and Gyorgy Ligeti have borne both the ethic and the aesthetic into our own time, and its immanence in present day university life and European musical festivals is still potent. Rejecting Schoenberg was like siding with the Philistines, and freeing myself from the model he represented was an act of enormous will power. Not surprisingly, my rejection took the form of parody…not a single parody, but several extremely different ones. In my Chamber Symphony the busy, hyperactive style of Schoenberg’s own early work is placed in a salad spinner with Hollywood cartoon music. In The Death of Klinghoffer the priggish, disdainful Austrian Woman describes how she spent the entire hijacking hiding under her bed by singing in a Sprechstimme to the accompaniment of a Pierrot-like ensemble in the pit.

My own Harmonielehre is parody of a different sort in that it bears a “subsidiary relation” to a model (in this case a number of signal works from the turn of the century like Gurrelieder and the Sibelius Fourth Symphony), but it does so without the intent to ridicule. It is a large, three-movement work for orchestra that marries the developmental techniques of Minimalism with the harmonic and expressive world of fin de siècle late Romanticism. It was a conceit that could only be attempted once. The shades of Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy, and the young Schoenberg are everywhere in this strange piece. This is a work that looks at the past in what I suspect is “postmodernist” spirit, but, unlike Grand Pianola Music or Nixon in China, it does so entirely without irony.

The first part is a seventeen-minute inverted arch form: high energy at the beginning and end, with a long, roaming “Sehnsucht” section in between. The pounding e minor chords at the beginning and end of the movement are the musical counterparts of a dream image I’d shortly before starting the piece. In the dream I’d watched a gigantic supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket. At the time (1984—85) I was still deeply involved in the study of C. G. Jung’s writings, particularly his examination of Medieval mythology. I was deeply affected by Jung’s discussion of the character of Anfortas, the king whose wounds could never be healed. As a critical archetype, Anfortas symbolized a condition of sickness of the soul that curses it with a feeling of impotence and depression. In this slow, moody movement entitled “The Anfortas Wound” a long, elegiac trumpet solo floats over a delicately shifting screen of minor triads that pass like spectral shapes from one family of instruments to the other. Two enormous climaxes rise up out of the otherwise melancholy landscape, the second one being an obvious homage to Mahler’s last, unfinished symphony.

The final part, “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie” begins with a simple berceuse (cradlesong) that is as airy, serene and blissful as “The Anfortas Wound” is earthbound, shadowy and bleak. The Zappaesque title refers to a dream I’d had shortly after the birth of our daughter, Emily, who was briefly dubbed “Quackie” during her infancy. In the dream, she rides perched on the shoulder of the Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, as they hover among the heavenly bodies like figures painted on the high ceilings of old cathedrals. The tender berceuse gradually picks up speed and mass (not unlike “The Negative Love” movement of Harmonium) and culminates in a tidal wave of brass and percussion over a pedal point on E-flat major.

The recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony was made only three days after the world premiere in March of 1985. (I have since revised the ending.) Despite the daunting length and rhythmic complexity of the piece, both conductor and orchestra made a totally convincing representation of it, and the recording can testify to the rare instances when a composer, a conductor, and an orchestra create an inexplicable bond among each other.


I. First movement
II. The Anfortas Wound
III. Meister Eckhardt and Quackie

Commissioned as part of the Meet the Composer Orchestra residency program and funded by Exxon Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

First performed March 21, 1985 by the San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart, conductor, Davies Hall, San Francisco

4 flutes (2,3,&4=piccolos), 3 oboes (3=English horn), 3 clarinets (3=bass clarinet 2), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (4 players) 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings

Duration: 40 minutes

Publisher: Associated Music Publishers (G. Schirmer, Inc.)


Harmonielehre MTT

San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond.

harmonielerhe de waart

San Francisco Symphony
Edo de Waart, conductor
Nonesuch 79115

rattle EMI cover

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle, conductor
EMI 550151


Royal Scottish National Orch., Peter Oundjian, conductor

Sheet music