Harmonium (Adams)

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This article is on the orchestral work. For information on other kinds of harmonia, see harmonium (disambiguation).

Harmonium is a composition for chorus and orchestra that could be considered a choral symphony in all but name, by the American composer John Adams, written in 1980-1981 for the first season of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, California. The work is based on poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. It is regarded as one of the key compositions of Adams' "minimalist" period.[1] The San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, with conductor Edo de Waart, gave the premiere of the work on 15 April 1981, and subsequently recorded it.[2] The UK premiere was on 13 October 1987 at Birmingham Town Hall, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) conducted by Simon Rattle.[3] Rattle and the CBSO gave the London premiere on 28 July 1990 at The Proms.[4]

Each movement is a setting of an entire poem:

  1. "Negative Love" (by John Donne)
  2. "Because I could not stop for Death" (by Emily Dickinson)
  3. "Wild Nights" (by Dickinson)

Timothy Johnson has discussed various aspects of the harmonic language of Harmonium in detail.[5] K. Robert Schwarz has noted the influence of the musical techniques of Steve Reich on Harmonium, and also has commented on the less schematic and more "intuitive" manner of Adams' composition in the work.[6]


  • Chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass [SATB]; minimum of 90 performers)
  • 4 flutes (3 doubling on piccolo)
  • 3 oboes
  • 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet)
  • 2 bassoons
  • 1 contrabassoon
  • 4 horns
  • 4 trumpets
  • 3 trombones
  • 1 tuba
  • 4 percussion players
  • harp
  • celesta
  • piano (doubling on synthesizer)
  • strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses)

John Adams on Harmonium[edit]

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.



  1. ^ Heisinger, Brent (1989). "American Minimalism in the 1980s". American Music (American Music, Vol. 7, No. 4) 187 (4): 430–447. doi:10.2307/3051914. JSTOR 3051914. 
  2. ^ John Rockwell (10 February 1985). "Expanding on Minimalist Music". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  3. ^ Clements, Andrew (December 1987). "Reports: Birmingham". The Musical Times (The Musical Times, Vol. 128, No. 1738) 128 (1738): 706–709. doi:10.2307/964828. JSTOR 964828. 
  4. ^ Rye, Matthew (November 1990). "Opera, Concert and Festival Reports: London, Proms 1". The Musical Times 131 (1773): 606–620. doi:10.2307/966196. JSTOR 966196. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Timothy A. (Spring 1993). "Harmonic Vocabulary in the Music of John Adams: A Hierarchical Approach". Journal of Music Theory (Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 37, No. 1) 37 (1): 117–156. doi:10.2307/843946. JSTOR 843946. 
  6. ^ Schwarz, K. Robert (Autumn 1990). "Process vs. Intuition in the Recent Works of Steve Reich and John Adams". American Music (American Music, Vol. 8, No. 3) 8 (3): 245–273. doi:10.2307/3052096. JSTOR 3052096. 


  • Steinberg, Michael, Choral Masterworks (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). ISBN to come.

External links[edit]