Century Rolls

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Century Rolls is a piano concerto by the American composer John Adams. Commissioned by Emanuel Ax, the work dates from 1997. Ax was the soloist in the concerto's premiere on September 25, 1997 in Cleveland, Ohio, with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting The Cleveland Orchestra.[1] Ax, von Dohnányi and The Cleveland Orchestra made the first commercial recording of the concerto, for Nonesuch.[2] Adams himself conducted the UK premiere on 1 November 1998, again with Ax as the piano soloist. [3]

Adams conceived the work after hearing the distinct sounds of a 1920s player-piano, and used this concerto to attempt to recreate that sound. He has said that the concerto is his view on "the whole past century of piano music".[3] In addition to the temporal element ("Century"), the title refers to old piano rolls.[4]


Solo piano, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor Anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, three horns, three trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (2 players: vibraphone, xylophone, wood block, marimba, high bongo, glockenspiel), harp, celesta, and strings.


The concerto is in three movements. The opening movement is nearly half the length of the entire piece followed by two shorter contrasting movements.

  1. First Movement: It opens with a simple motif from the harp, piccolo, and flute over top of the pounding of the piano. As the piece evolves the strings, brass, and percussion accompany the softer sounds of the harp, piccolo, and flute, making the piece much more dynamic. The other instruments rotate in and out, but the sound of the piano is consistent and hammering. This contrasting sound represents, as Adams believes, the dichotomy between ‘extravagant and unserious’. The light beginning filled with the softer sounds are fanciful and represent this ‘unserious’ aspect. However, as the movement continues and builds the harder, more ‘extravagant’ sounds take over the piece. Adams mixes elements of Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Paderewski, and Jelly Roll Morton to create a modern piano roll sound.[3]
  2. "Manny’s Gym": As the second movement enters, it is much slower than the opening. The piano sound softens itself and the strings accompany with the same sensual sound. The sound of both the piano and the strings contrast greatly with the first movement. It is much more drawn out. It starts to build, but never reaches a climax. The sounds smooths down to a dreamlike trance.[3] The title refers to the Gymnopedies of Erik Satie and to Emanuel Ax's nickname, "Manny".
  3. "Hail, Bop": The title of the third movement is a pun on the Hale-Bopp comet, which appeared over America while Adams was writing the piece. The pounding sounds resonate throughout this movement, echoing the first movement and its ‘extravagant’ sound. Robert Stein writes that the ‘finale (Hail Bop) takes us back to the bump’n’boogie world of the first movement with its jabby syncopations and high speed scales and arpeggios.’[3]


  1. ^ "News Section". Tempo. 202 (202): 62–64. 1997. JSTOR 945791. doi:10.1017/s0040298200049433. 
  2. ^ Allan Kozinn (2001-01-03). "Classical CD's; Vitality in the New, Nods to the Old". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Stein, Robert (1999). "Music in London: Orchestral". Tempo. 208 (208): 66–67. JSTOR 944679. 
  4. ^ Anthony Tommasini (2003-04-04). "John Adams Festival". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 

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