'The forty-five minute symphony that broke me out of this long creative lockdown was a statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future': exploring John Adams' symphonic epic of 1985
Writing a Symphony in the 1980s
Although not a symphony by name, Harmonielehre is one of the most significant examples of a composer grappling with the idea of a symphony in the twentieth century, asking what it takes to write large-scale orchestral music for the concert hall in the age of synth pop, Live Aid and Madonna's Material Girl. Writing in his memoir Hallelujah Junction, John Adams says:
Harmonielehre, the forty-five minute symphony that broke me out of this long creative lockdown, was a statement of belief in the power of tonality at a time when I was uncertain about its future. I needn't have worried, as the huge success of popular music and our growing awareness of other non-Western traditions were already making it clear that tonal harmony was in no danger of demise.
We hear all the elements of Adams’ style that are typically associated with Minimalism, and meanwhile the piece pays homage to the music of late-Romantic composers. Harmonielehre rises bit by bit to Mahlerian peaks, and the second movement opens with the bleak sparsity of Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony.
Nevertheless, Adams' references to musical forebears shouldn't be heard in an ironic sense:
Those writers who mistakenly compared Harmonielehre to postmodernist architecture with its self-conscious borrowings from past traditions miss the spirit in which my work was composed. While writing the piece, I felt as if I were channelling the sensibilities of those composers I loved and finding contemporary form for their special harmonic worlds, treating them as if they had been conjured in a séance.
Harmonielehre’s title comes from Arnold Schoenberg’s harmony textbook. It’s a guide to how composers used tonality and harmony from the Renaissance to the Romantic age:
My decision to name my symphony Harmonielehre is almost impossible to explain. It was part whimsical, part an acknowledgement of my puzzling father-son relationship to the master [Schoenberg] … It might also imply a psychic quest for harmony.
Harmonielehre was inspired by dreams. John Adams had a vision of an oil tanker in the waters of San Francisco Bay blasting into space:
'It slowly rose up like a Saturn rocket and blasted out of the bay and into the sky. I could see the rust-coloured metal oxide of its hull as it took off. Shortly after I sat down in my studio to find the powerful pounding E-minor chords that launch the piece.'
Likewise the final movement is inspired by a dream about a cosmic flight with German philosopher Meister Eckhardt. The surreal scale of Harmonielehre is no less epic.
Myth and Magic
Harmonielehre’s second movement, ‘The Anfortas Wound’, refers to a mythical king kept alive by the powers of the Holy Grail, who also appears in Wagner’s Parsifal. In the 1970s and 80s, Adams became fascinated by Wagner’s music dramas – how he represented human nature and desires through myth, as well as the fluid harmonic processes Wagner used to paint huge narrative arcs in music.
Sir Simon Rattle recorded Adams’ Harmonielehre in 1994 while he was Principal Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and during this period he oversaw the 1991 opening of the CBSO’s new home at Symphony Hall. At the heart of his work was a commitment the music of the 20th century, reflected in his groundbreaking CBSO concert series Towards the Millennium.
Sir Simon Rattle photographed by Peter Hundert