Minimalism – Essay 1
‘Rejecting Schoenberg was like siding with the Phillistines, and freeing myself from the model he represented was an act of enormous willpower’. Discuss this statement by John Adams with reference to the orchestral work ‘Harmonielehre’. Is this work a refreshing new departure or a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures?
By inventing the serial system of twelve tone music and atonalism, Schoenberg had created “the agony of modern music”. The minimalists had rebelled against the systematic, “aurally ugly” music of Schoenberg and the avant-garde beliefs of atonality being the “Promised Land”, choosing instead to return to traditional tonality. Adams partially agreed with the rebellion against Schoenbergian music, his works containing distinctly minimalist elements. Thus when he spoke about “freeing [him]self from the model Schoenberg represented”, he meant to reject serialism and atonality, as well as the process of composing which “demands rigorous systemization of structure”.
However, Adams has also expressed his respect for Schoenberg. Kirchner, with whom Adams studied while at Harvard, had himself been a student of Schoenberg. Though the minimalists had already paved the way for departure from the Schoenbergian model, it was perhaps still a difficult decision for Adams to divert from such an influential figure. After all, Schoenberg pioneered serialism and atonality. In addition, having grown up listening to the popular music of his time, Adams was constantly struggling to find a balance between what he listened to (notably American jazz, popular music, gospel music and rock ‘n’ roll) and the music that he studied in university.
Adams had upset two camps of thought with Harmonielehre’s 1985 premiere: “Minimalists thought it was a tribute to their No. 1 bogeyman while modernists saw it as a reactionary piece that took their hero’s name in vain.” This essay thus seeks to discuss the main characteristics of Adams’s compositional style in particular reference to Harmonielehre, and hence attempt to determine if, as a result of Adams’s internal conflicts, the said work is more of a refreshing new departure or a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures.
Adams’s derivation from atonality may be considered a return to tried and tested orchestral gestures. He was particularly taken with the expressiveness of tonality, appreciating its potential to affect emotions in the hands of masters like Wagner, whom he greatly admired. In contrast, he found atonality “severely limiting in both its expressive range as well as in its ability to maintain large formal structures.”
Adams has re-embraced tonality in much of his music including Harmonielehre, containing long passages employing a single set of pitch classes usually encompassed by one diatonic set. His earlier pieces generally remain diatonic throughout. The first movement of Harmonielehre begins and ends with pounding E minor chords repeated in a typical minimalistic style, and the piece culminates with a tidal wave of brass and percussion over an E-flat major pedal point.
However, Adams is not a complete traditionalist as his harmonic vocabulary does not remain limited to purely diatonic chords. Non-diatonic pcs are frequently introduced in his later pieces beginning with Harmonielehre. Pcs outside E minor are first introduced in b.19 of the first movement, in this case D, making the chord an Em7.
Example 1. John Adams, Harmonielehre, mm. 17-21, orchestral reduction
D reappears in b.31 and henceforth gains prominence. Here, it is featured in the piano, blurring the E minor centre.
Example 2. John Adams, Harmonielehre, harmonic sketch
The end of the last movement (Meister Eckhardt and Quackie), features more chromatic harmonies, with a ‘vast harmonic struggle that breaks through into an emphatic release on E-flat major’. Unlike a traditional tonal piece with systematically...
Bibliography: A. Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony (London, 1983)
D. A. Lee, Masterworks of 20th-Century Music: The Modern Repertory of the Symphony Orchestra (New York, August 2002), 1-7
John Adams, quoted in Michael Steinberg, “Harmonium, by John Adams,” program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, Stagebill, 4, 6-7 Jan. 1987, 20B.
Philip Clark, Programme Notes for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, 28 Jan 2011
The discussion between Jonathan Cott and Adams concerning Harmonielehre in liner notes to Harmonielehre (Nonesuch 79115, 1985)
T. A. Johnson, ‘Minimalism: Aesthetic, Style or Technique?’, The Music Quarterly, Vol. 78, No. 4 (Winter, 1994), 747-773
T. May, ‘Interview: John Adams reflects on his career’, The John Adams Reader, ed. Thomas May (USA, 2006), 2-28
A. Ross, ‘The Harmonist’, The John Adams Reader, ed. Thomas May (USA, 2006), 29-44
K. R. Schwarz, ‘Process vs. Intuition in the Recent Works of Steve Reich and John Adams’, American Music, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), 245-273
John Adams, “From Nixon in China to Walt Whitman: An Interview with John Adams” interview by Edward Strickland, Fanfare, Jan-Feb. 1990, 46.
J. Kosman, ‘Harmonielehre, John Adams’, Chester Novello (accessed 15 November 2011), http://www.chesternovello.com/default.aspx?TabId=2432&State_3041=2&workId_3041=23704
C. Zeichner, ‘Minimalism maximized – John Adams’, Ariama (accessed 21 November 2011),
[ 3 ]. J. Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life (London, 2008), p.107
[ 4 ]
[ 9 ]. Examples: Harmonium (1980), Common Tones in Simple Tone (1979) and Shaker Loops (1978)
[ 10 ]
[ 13 ]. M. Steinberg, ‘Harmonielehre’, The John Adams Reader, ed. Thomas May (USA, 2006), 101-105
[ 14 ]
[ 17 ]. David Sterritt, “John Adams and His ‘Nixon in China’: Could This Be Another ‘Porgy and Bess’?” Christian Science Monitor, 19 Oct. 1987, 21-22
[ 18 ]
[ 21 ]. From the discussion between Jonathan Cott and Adams concerning Harmonielehre in liner notes to Harmonielehre (Nonesuch 79115, 1985)
[ 22 ]
[ 23 ]. T. May, ‘Interview: John Adams reflects on his career’, The John Adams Reader, (USA, 2006), 2-28
[ 24 ]
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