Harmonielehre

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Harmonielehre is a 1985 composition by American composer John Adams. The composition's title, German for "study of harmony," is found in the title of several music theory texts, including those written by Arnold Schoenberg (1911), Heinrich Schenker (1906), and Hugo Riemann (1893), with Adams explicitly referring to Schoenberg's.[1]

Adams has stated that the piece was inspired by a dream 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 abruptly turn upright and take off like a Saturn V rocket.[2] This dream and the following composition of the piece ended a writer's block Adams had been experiencing for eighteen months,[3] and the movements reflect his situation, representing, respectively, liberation (I), spiritual sickness (II), and grace (III).[citation needed]

The composition is in three movements:

  • I. The first movement, which is unnamed, begins with the repetition of chords in E minor in minimalist fashion. These chords form a recurring theme throughout the movement, interspersed with motoric episodes which use Schoenberg's harmonic progressions as chordal "gates" (a name coined by Adams to describe juxtapositions of harmonic areas in his music).[4] However, about halfway through the movement the cellos begin to play an expressive melody that is eventually taken up by the entire orchestra.
  • II. The Anfortas Wound. The brooding second movement, based on the legend of the Fisher King, also shuns minimalistic processes, favoring bleak Sibelius-like soundscapes, building inexorably slowly to twin climaxes of brutal dissonance, the second of which is drawn from the climactic sonority of the first movement of Gustav Mahler's unfinished Tenth Symphony. Like the unhealed wounds of the legendary Anfortas that provided the inspiration for this movement and reflect Adams' situation before the composition, the music's tensions are never truly resolved.
  • III. Meister Eckhardt and Quackie. The third movement, according to Adams, is inspired by a dream that he had about his daughter Emily, whom he and his wife had nicknamed "Quackie." In the dream, young Emily rides through outer space upon the shoulders of 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart.[5] In this movement, components of minimalism return with the return of repetitive rhythms and short snippets of melody. The work ends with a triumphant affirmation of tonality on an E major chord (with most instruments emphasizing the open fifth E-B).

The work was first premiered by the San Francisco Symphony. A performance of the piece typically takes about 40 minutes.

Harmonielehre appears in the Modern Era soundtrack of Civilization IV, along with several other pieces by Adams. The composition also appears in the video game Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Instrumentation[edit]

flutes (doubling 3 piccolos), 3 oboes (doubling 1 english horn), 4 clarinets, all in B♭ and A (doubling 2 bass clarinets), 3 bassoons, contrabassoon

horns in F, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, 2 tubas

timpani, 4 percussionists handling 2 marimbas, vibraphone (bowed and struck), xylophone, tubular bells, crotales (bowed and struck), glockenspiel, 2 suspended cymbals (high and low), sizzle cymbal, small crash cymbals, bell tree, 2 tamtams (2 actually referred to as "Medium Gong" in the second movement), 2 triangles (different pitches), bass drum,

harps, piano, celesta

Strings

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Harmonielehre on earbox.com. Retrieved 2013-9-16
  2. ^ Harmonielehre John Adams. Retrieved 2010-07-15
  3. ^ Adams, John. Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, pp. 128-129.
  4. ^ Phrygian Gates John Adams. Retrieved 2011-04-15
  5. ^ Harmonielehre John Adams. Retrieved 2011-04-15