John Adams’ Chamber Symphony

American composer John Adams (b. 1947) made his name in minimalism. He brought the contemporary into contemporary opera by using recent historical events (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic) for his subject matter.

John Adams

John Adams

His work in smaller genres, such as chamber music has been much more limited, with only 10 works under that heading. One of those is his Chamber Symphony, written in 1992.

Commissioned by the Gerbode Foundation of San Francisco for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players, the work posed a problem for Adams. Finally inspired by the eponymous work by Arnold Schoenberg (the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, written in 1906) and, oddly enough, the music for the 1950s cartoons his son was watching in another room, Adams was able to create a work that combined Schoenberg’s ‘hyperactive, acrobatic, and not a little aggressive’ music with the ‘hyperactive insistently aggressive, and acrobatic’ cartoon music. Most of his music is large-scale, involving, as he said ‘broad brushstrokes on big canvasses’. Smaller works at the time also promoted the use of mass sonorities. Now, Adams was going after the transparency and greater mobility that a chamber piece would provide.

Other pieces of music for small ensembles, including Milhaud‘s La Creation du Monde, ballet music written for a small orchestra of 18 players; Stravinsky’s Octet and Histoire du Soldat, for a septet of instruments and a trio of actors; and Hindemith‘s Kleine Kammermusik, for 5 players, gave Adams more models for small ensemble writing.

The work is in three movements, unlike Schoenberg’s, which is in 1 movement but with five subdivisions built into that movement, each with a contrasting mood. The first movement, entitled Mongrel Airs, was originally entitled Discipliner et Punire (Discipline and Punish) before the new title came, ‘to honour a British critic who complained that my music lacked breeding’.

John Adams: Chamber Symphony – I. Mongrel Airs (Ensemble Modern; Sian Edwards, cond.)

The second movement, the longest of the piece, seems to wander about – the bass may be walking, but the trombone melody over the top seems directionless.

John Adams: Chamber Symphony – II. Aria with Walking Bass (Ensemble Modern; Sian Edwards, cond.)

One reviewer noted that the last movement ‘leaves the listener with the unsettling impression that the music is being played backwards’. As befits its title, it’s active and moving, with the expected abrupt stops.

The Road Runner cartoon

The Road Runner

John Adams: Chamber Symphony – III. Roadrunner (Ensemble Modern; Sian Edwards, cond.)

The orchestration for the work largely follows that of Schoenberg for winds and strings, but has the addition of brass instruments, percussion, and an electronic tape.

The composer acknowledges the intrinsic difficulty of the work: ‘Instruments are asked to negotiate unreasonably difficult passages and alarmingly fast tempi, often to inexorable click of the trap set’. The work was recognized as being a change of style for minimalist Adams because of its complex rhythmic and harmonic elements. A follow-up work was written in 2007 with the name Son of Chamber Symphony.

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  1. I have been listening to this composers music for years. A fine composer. Dynamic colourful rhythms. A music full of insight, energy and vitality.

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