for chorus and large orchestra

Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony to celebrate the inaugural season of the the Louise M. Davies Hall and dedicted to Edo de Waart, who suggested the piece and who led its first performance on April 15, 1981.

I. Negative Love

II. Because I could not stop for death

III. Wild Nights

John Adams on Harmonium

Harmonium (1980) and Shaker Loops (1978) represent my first mature statements in a language that was born out of my initial exposure to Minimalism. From the very start my own brand of Minimalism began to push the envelope. What was orderly and patiently evolving in the works of Reich or Glass was in my works already subject to violent changes in gesture and mood. In Shaker Loops, for example, I utilized the repetitive techniques that Terry Riley first proposed in his ensemble piece, In C. But rather than set up small engines of motivic materials and let them run free in a kind of random play of counterpoint, I used the fabric of continually repeating cells to forge large architectonic shapes, creating a web of activity that, even within the course of a single movement, was more detailed, more varied, and knew both light and dark, serenity and turbulence.

Harmonium was composed in 1980 in a small studio on the third floor of an old Victorian house in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Those of my friends who knew both the room and the piece of music were amused that a piece of such spaciousness should emerge from such cramped quarters. The title of the work was all that survived from my initial intention to set poems from Wallace Stevens’s collection of the same name. After I realized that Stevens’s language and rhythmic sense was not my own, I cast far and wide for a text to satisfy a musical image that I had in mind. That image was one of human voices–many of them–riding upon waves of rippling sound. Ultimately I settled on three poems of transcendental vision. “Negative Love” by John Donne examines the qualities of various forms of love, ascending in the manner of Plato’s Symposium, from the carnal to the divine. I viewed this “ascent” as a kind of vector, having both velocity and direction. Musically, this meant a formal shape that began with a single, pulsing note (a D above middle C) that, by the process of accretion, becomes a tone cluster, then a chord, and eventually a huge, calmly rippling current of sound that takes on energy and mass until it eventually crests on an immense cataract of sound some ten minutes later. To date, I still consider “Negative Love” one of the most satisfying architectural experiments in all my work.

The two Dickinson poems show the polar opposites of her poetic voice. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is the intimate, hushed Dickinson, whose beyond-the-grave monologue is a sequence of images from a short life, a kind of pastoral elegy expressed through the lens of a slow-motion camera. Like Aaron Copland before me, I unknowingly set the bowdlerized version of the original, being unaware at the time that the poet’s original version differed significantly in syntax from the more smoothed-out, conventional version made by Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Following the last palpitations of the slow movement the music enters a transition section, a kind of bardo stage between the end of one life and the beginning of a new one. Again, as in “Negative Love,” the music gradually assumes weight, force and speed until it is hurled headlong into the bright, vibrant clangor of “Wild Nights.” Here is the other side of Emily Dickinson, saturated with an intoxicated, ecstatic, pressing urge to dissolve herself in some private and unknowable union of eros and death. The metaphors, at once violent and sexually hypercharged, play upon the image of a “heart in port”, secure and out of danger from the wild storm-tossed sea. So much has been written about Emily Dickinson, and her mysterious persona has been subjected to so much speculative analysis, that it is always a shock to encounter these texts alone and away from any kind of exegesis.

Texts for Harmonium

Negative Love or The Nothing
I never stoop’d so low, as they
Which on an eye, cheek, lip can prey.
Seldom to them, which soar no higher
Than virtue or the mind to admire.
For sense, and understanding may
Know what gives fuel to their fire:
My love, though silly, is more brave,
For may I miss, when’er I crave,
If I know yet, what I would have.
If that be simply perfectest
Which can by no way be express’d
But Negatives, my love is so.
To All, which all love, I say no.
If any who deciphers best,
What we know not, our selves, can know,
Let him teach me that nothing; this
As yet my ease and comfort is,
Though I speed not, I cannot miss.
John Donne

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground:
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ‘tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
Emily Dickinson

Wild Nights–Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Out Luxury!
Futile–the winds–
To a Heart in port–
Done with the Compass–
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden–
Ah, the sea!
Might I but moor–Tonight–
In thee!
Emily Dickinson

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SATB Chorus (minimum of 90); 4 flutes (2,3,4= picc.), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (3=bass clar), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon (bsn 3), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba ,4 percussion, harp, celesta, piano (also plays synthesizer), strings

Duration: 32 minutes


San Francisco Symphony & Chorus
John Adams, conductor
Nonesuch 79549


San Francisco Symphony & Chorus
Edo de Waart, conductor
ECM New Series 1277

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