By inventing the serial system of twelve tone music and atonalism, Schoenberg had created “the agony of modern music”. The minimalists had rebelled against the systematic, “aurally ugly” music of Schoenberg and the avant-garde beliefs of atonality being the “Promised Land”, choosing instead to return to traditional tonality. Adams partially agreed with the rebellion against Schoenbergian music, his works containing distinctly minimalist elements. Thus when he spoke about “freeing [him]self from the model Schoenberg represented”, he meant to reject serialism and atonality, as well as the process of composing which “demands rigorous systemization of structure”.
However, Adams has also expressed his respect for Schoenberg. Kirchner, with whom Adams studied while at Harvard, had himself been a student of Schoenberg. Though the minimalists had already paved the way for departure from the Schoenbergian model, it was perhaps still a difficult decision for Adams to divert from such an influential figure. After all, Schoenberg pioneered serialism and atonality. In addition, having grown up listening to the popular music of his time, Adams was constantly struggling to find a balance between what he listened to (notably American jazz, popular music, gospel music and rock ‘n’ roll) and the music that he studied in university.
Adams had upset two camps of thought with Harmonielehre’s 1985 premiere: “Minimalists thought it was a tribute to their No. 1 bogeyman while modernists saw it as a reactionary piece that took their hero’s name in vain.” This essay thus seeks to discuss the main characteristics of Adams’s compositional style in particular reference to Harmonielehre, and hence attempt to determine if, as a result of Adams’s internal conflicts, the said work is more of a refreshing new departure or a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures.
Adams’s derivation from atonality may be considered a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures. He was particularly taken with the expressiveness of tonality, appreciating its potential to affect emotions in the hands of masters like Wagner, whom he greatly admired. In contrast, he found atonality “severely limiting in both its expressive range as well as in its ability to maintain large formal structures.”
Adams has re-embraced tonality in much of his music including Harmonielehre, containing long passages employing a single set of pitch classes usually encompassed by one diatonic set. His earlier pieces generally remain diatonic throughout. The first movement of Harmonielehre begins and ends with pounding E minor chords repeated in a typical minimalistic style, and the piece culminates with a tidal wave of brass and percussion over an E-flat major pedal point.
However, Adams is not a complete traditionalist as his harmonic vocabulary does not remain limited to purely diatonic chords. Non-diatonic pcs are frequently introduced in his later pieces beginning with Harmonielehre. Pcs outside E minor are first introduced in b.19 of the first movement, in this case D, making the chord an Em7.
D reappears in b.31 and henceforth gains prominence. Here, it is featured in the piano, blurring the E minor centre.
The end of the last movement (Meister Eckhardt and Quackie), features more chromatic harmonies, with a ‘vast harmonic struggle that breaks through into an emphatic release on E-flat major’. Unlike a traditional tonal piece with systematically planned harmonies and a conclusive modulatory sequence, Adams simply “place[s] the keys together, as if in a mixer, and let them battle it out”. Nevertheless, the chromaticism is built on a diatonic basis, evident from their association with diatonic passages and the secondary role of the non-diatonic pcs.
Harmonielehre is thus largely a tonal work and parodies the book by the same title written by Schoenberg, in which he discusses the functions of tonal harmony only to completely renounce it. By the title of Harmonielere, Adams explores aspects of harmony within his own language.
Adams’s subscription to minimalism may also be considered a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures since minimalism had been going on for some time before he came on scene. The principal minimalist features include “a continuous formal structure, an even rhythmic texture and bright tone, a simple harmonic palette, a lack of extended melodic lines, and repetitive patterns.” Some of Adams’s early piano works, notably Common tones in Simple Time (1979-80, rev. 1986), Light Over Water (1983), and Phrygian Gates (1978) fit the aforementioned criteria.
This is also observed in the opening of Harmonielehre (Example 3). The minimalistic repetitions of the E minor chords result in the creation of a repetitive pulse.
A simple harmonic palette (as discussed earlier) is a feature of both the Minimalist and Tonal traditions. Slow harmonic changes are evident in the opening (Example 3) – the E minor chord lasts till b.19 when D is introduced in the flutes and oboes and only 26 bars later (b.45) is a C added. The harmony finally changes again at b.59.These simple harmonies and gradual harmonic movement further imply the influence of minimalism.
However, Adams expands these minimalist techniques rather than using the aesthetic and style common in Reich’s or Riley’s music. While most minimalists (with the notable exception of La Monte Young) shunned the minimalist label, Adams embraces it and feels that he has exceeded the label: “Minimalism really can be a bore – you get those Great Prairies of non-event – but that highly polished, perfectly resonant sound is wonderful.” His later works, while still bearing some minimalist characteristics, depart from the common aesthetic, and no attempt is made to achieve systematic purity.
Adams formulates his melodies using an additive technique, which is common to Glass. However, unlike Glass, there is no obvious pattern as to where or when Adams chooses to add or subtract notes, and the resultant melody is unpredictable. This is seen in the second violins in the first movement (Example 5):
Another example can be drawn from the opening, featuring the Minimalist repetition of E minor chords which do not recur in any regular rhythmic pattern. The sense of pulse is unclear and somewhat unpredictable as the chords move closer by increments and create a syncopated effect, compromising the Minimalist technique of even and continuous pulsation.
Adams’s deviation from Minimalism is also evidenced by his remarks in relation to Harmonielehre: “I’m not the kind of composer who… previsages the entire structure of a piece in advance… in a certain sense, I feel the structure as I’m creating it.”
Adams is not a “pure” Minimalist – while he utilizes Minimalist techniques, his simultaneous fondness of expressivity is unique. The combination of both traits is a refreshing departure from both extremities. In Adams’ words, “I don’t have the kind of refined, systematic language that [the minimalists] have… I rely a lot more on my intuitive sense of balance… as far as I can tell, most nineteenth-century composers wrote on intuitive levels.” He found that the Minimalist aesthetic of non-teleology resulted in a ‘confined emotional bandwidth’ and threatened to limit Minimalist music. Thus in most of his works, he employs Minimalist techniques to explore its “expressive emotional potential – something the first generation [of Minimalists] generally eschewed.”
Adams’ fondness for expressiveness is not only evidenced by his embracement of tonality, but also by other signature Romantic traits found in his works. This is especially true in Harmonielehre, which “verges on Minimalism, but touches almost as much on a melodic Romanticism”. The combination of minimalist techniques with Romantic expressivity is evidenced in the opening of the last movement. The flutes take the accompanying line, with repetitive patterns first on E and G, then on an E minor triad. A melody characterised by expressive leaps (taken by the strings) is heard over the shimmering waves of repetition. Such timbre further creates a warm, emotive sound.
The same movement contains a passage beginning with pounding E minor chords. The harmony here is relatively simple, gradually shifting from one chord to the next through the addition or alteration of a note (a rather Minimalist characteristic). Minimalist harmony combines with the Romantic textures to culminate in the climax (Example 6), with the texture and sound continuously thickening and broadening.
Another example can be seen in the first movement (mm. 254-300), which contains a broad singing melody first carried by the solo horn then cellos, and later the upper strings. The accompanying triple arpeggios (first harp and woodwinds) weld the section with the preceding passage of repetitive patterns and pulses. Along with the sustained brass chords, the music reaches a climax with the amalgamation of the two different styles, reminiscent of Romanticism with the broadening texture and warm sound.
Thus although these passages clearly exceed the Minimalist style in their melodic and harmonic construction, the Minimalist technique dominates the accompaniment in rhythm and texture, a distinct example of how the music is a ‘refreshing new departure’.
“The shades of Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy, and the young Schoenberg are everywhere in this strange piece.” The second movement of Harmonielehre (The Anfortas Wound) alludes to Sibelius’ Fourth Symphony (1910 – 11), which Adams claims as the ‘primary generating model’ , evidenced by the long, melancholic melody played by muted cellos. This movement also bears a programmatic reference to Wagner’s Parsifal (1857 – 1882) featuring Anfortas , represented by the long, elegiac trumpet solo. Wrenching harmonies, constantly descending chords and regular meters contribute to ‘…the imagery of sickness and confinement, one day after another, just rolling on.’
The ending of the movement contains two giant climaxes, the second one a tribute to Mahler’s unfinished Ninth Symphony (1909 – 1919). The first movement bears a tribute to the late Romantics, including allusions to, ironically, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder (1900 – 1911). The shimmering effect in the opening of the third movement even alludes to early Impressionism. These Romantic traits, along with the Minimalistic slow harmonic rhythms, again show the eclectic treatment of both styles.
In conclusion, Harmonielehre is a combination of “the harmonic economy of Minimalism with the picturesque extravagance of late-Romantic orchestration.” Adams does not revolutionize music in the way that Schoenberg or the minimalists did by completely rejecting the previous popular approach to composition. His music could thus be considered a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures. However, by combining both romantic expressiveness and minimalist techniques, he has created a new level of balance between the two which is indubitably a refreshing departure from both styles. In his own words, Adams says that “[Many composers] want to rewrite history or something. I don’t.”
J. Adams, Harmonielehre, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (EMI Classics), 1994, CD B000002RU2
An excellent response to the question. You have used an admirable range of sources and, most importantly, identified critical material arising from the premiere of the piece. You have not only used music examples effectively, but made your own harmonic analyses where none others were available. Your writing style is clear and concise and citation accurate. Countermarker’s comment: agreed. An outstanding essay, well-done!