John Adams: Harmonielehre


John Adams’ epic symphonic work Harmonielehre was composed in 1985. The title derives from the German for ‘Study of Harmony’, which is also a reference to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 theory book of the same name. Adam has commented that Harmonielehre was inspired by a dream that he had in which he was driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and saw an oil tanker on the surface of the water quickly turn upright and take off like a Saturn V rocket. 

With this inspiration came this three-movement work that ended Adams’ writing block that he had been experiencing for around 18 months. Each movement is said to reflect Adams’ situation at the time. 


The Music
Part I

Opening with incessant repetitive E minor chords, Adams’ minimalist style shines through. These repeated chords are used as a recurring theme throughout this 17 minute-long movement. There are motor rhythm sections throughout which use Schoenberg’s harmonic progressions as “chordal gates” (juxtapositions of harmonies). 

At the heart of this movement is a luxuriously expressive theme. The lyrical melody soars through the orchestra and is the indulgent centre of the movement. This movement represents the rocket-like oil tank that takes off into space.


Part II – The Anfortas Wound

The atmospheric second movement is based on the legend of the Fisher King. Minimalist conventions are shunned throughout most of this movement, with more traditional symphonic poem techniques being used. The slow build to the two climaxes of harsh dissonance are the two focal points of the movement. The shift to sonority is really effective, with the ideas oozing out of the music. 


Part III – Meister Eckhardt and Quackie

Also inspired by a dream, the sparkling finale movement centres around Adams’ (then infant) daughter Emily. The dream saw Emily shooting round the cosmos on the back of a flying medieval theologian, Meister Eckhardt. Adams and his wife nicknamed Emily ‘Quackie’. The music is ethereal at times and certainly veering on that ‘Space age sound’. The sonorous strings, accentuated by the sparkling percussion adds that sprinkle of magic to this nostalgic and quite innocent music. 


Final Thoughts

From dreams of space travel, theological creatures and bridges, John Adams’ Harmonielehre is an illustrative example of what you can do with harmonic progressions. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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