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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.
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. This dream and the following composition of the piece ended a writer's block Adams had been experiencing for eighteen months, and the movements reflect his situation.
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).
- 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.
- 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."
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,
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