John Adams: “Naive and Sentimental Music”

American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naive and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

Listening to this piece is an extraordinary roller coaster of moods and colors. According to Wikipedia (hey, I can cite Wikipedia if I want to!):

The title of the work alludes to an essay by Friedrich Schiller, On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, that contrasts a creative personality that creates art for its own sake (the “naïve”) versus one conscious of other purposes, such as art’s place in history (the “sentimental”).

In the first movement, also called “Naive and Sentimental Music,” a wandering, “naive” woodwind melody is introduced over a steady, strummed accompaniment. This melody experiences various transformations during the movement, a journey which is sometimes wonderous, sometimes scary, sometimes tender, but always exciting. At times, the music takes on a “sentimental” character, sounding vaguely reminiscent of the gargantuan symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. The two make attempts to reconcile, but the movement ultimately ends in a burst of ecstatic cacophony.

“Mother of the Man,” the second movement, is in my honest opinion, some of the most gorgeous music penned in the twentieth century. It is loosely modeled off of Ferruccio Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, which is subtitled a “cradle song of the man at the coffin of his mother.” In Adams’s piece, a lush acoustic guitar solo bookends the movement, supported by a soft bed of sumptuous string chords. Although the middle section becomes darker and even frightening at times, all ends peacefully at whisper-level volume.

The last movement – “Chain to the Rhythm” – shifts the character completely. Here, Adams returns to his characteristic “minimalist” style, presenting small rhythmic cells and gradually layering them on top of one another. Most of the movement is light and buoyant, but much like the first movement, the music eventually grows into a frenzied dance, ending with a tremendous explosion from the brass and percussion.

Although it’s probably not his best-known creation, this piece is one of my absolute favorites by John Adams. (Hearing a live performance by the LA Phil in 2014, with Adams conducting, sealed the deal.) It’s quite a ride – not always the most easy-going or relaxing – but one that is well worth taking again and again.

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