Doctor Atomic Symphony
Work composed: 2007
First Oregon Symphony performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets (1 doubling piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, 2 tam-tams, thunder sheet, tuned gongs, harp, celeste, and strings
Estimated duration: 24 minutes
“The atomic bomb had been the overwhelming, irresistible, inescapable image that dominated the psychic activity of my childhood,” John Adams observes in his book, Hallelujah Junction. In 1999, Pamela Rosenberg, general director of the San Francisco Opera, approached Adams with the idea of writing an “American Faust” opera about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. As head of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer oversaw the construction and testing of the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. Adams’ opera, Doctor Atomic, focuses on the days leading up to the first atomic bomb tests in the New Mexico desert outside Los Alamos. Doctor Atomic premiered in the fall of 2005 in San Francisco, and was subsequently staged in Chicago and at the Metropolitan Opera.
Two years after Doctor Atomic premiered, Adams assembled some of the instrumental music from the opera into what he describes as a “compact and high-energy symphony … [which] itself is kind of explosive, as if it were Oppenheimer’s plutonium sphere just about to go supercritical.”
“The first part is called The Laboratory, and it begins with the music that begins the opera,” Adams continues. “I was inspired by the science fiction movie music of the 1950s, which I watched as a little kid on a black and white television. I remembered how many of these sci-fi movies started with some nuclear test in the desert and then some terrible thing happens … And I thought, in a way, that really constituted a mythology of our time, that kind of existential angst, the awareness of nuclear war, and particularly the kind of fear that I felt as a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s. The orchestra is very powerful and dissonant and pounding at the beginning, and this gives way to the second part, which I call Panic. This is music from Act II of Doctor Atomic, where there’s an enormous sense of frenzy and anxiety. The scientists are under huge pressure to deliver this bomb, to make sure it works, and at the same time, [the music] summons up what a city that’s being bombed might be like.
“The final moments of the Doctor Atomic Symphony bring probably the most famous part of the opera, which is my setting of John Donne’s famous sonnet, ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God.’ This is a sonnet in which the poet talks about the loss of his soul and asks God to come and literally ‘break, burn, batter’ him, that he may regain his soul, which has since been given to the Devil. I give these words to Robert Oppenheimer. I don’t believe that at the time of the detonation of the bomb Oppenheimer necessarily felt this kind of remorse, but we know that he did later, when he saw what nuclear weapons had wrought on society. It’s a very poetic moment; the music has a certain atmosphere or flavor of a very slow solemn passacaglia … and the melody, which originally of course is sung by Oppenheimer, I give to the solo trumpet.”
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Worked composed: 1900–1901
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: February 24, 2014; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Arnaldo Cohen, piano
Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, and strings
Estimated duration: 33 minutes
In 1900, Sergei Rachmaninoff was at low ebb, professionally and emotionally. His Symphony No. 1 had premiered to dismal reviews three years earlier, and this setback triggered a paralyzing depression that returned periodically throughout Rachmaninoff’s life. As Rachmaninoff recounted in his Memoirs, “I did nothing and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent lying on a couch and sighing over my ruined life.” In desperation, Rachmaninoff sought help from a hypnotist, Dr. Nicolai Dahl, who was also an amateur string player. Dahl, using hypnotic techniques, would plant encouraging thoughts about writing the concerto in Rachmaninoff’s head during their sessions. In Rachmaninoff’s Recollections, the composer recounts, “I heard the same hypnotic formula repeated day after day while I lay half asleep in my armchair in Dr. Dahl’s study, ‘You will begin to write your concerto … You will work with great facility … The concerto will be of excellent quality …’ It was always the same, without interruption. Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me.” With Dahl’s support, Rachmaninoff was able to complete the concerto. It was an instant success; the following year, when Opus 18 was published, Rachmaninoff dedicated it to “Monsieur N. Dahl.”
The work opens with the soloist sounding a series of chords that ring like church bells, and grow in both volume and intensity. Interestingly for a piano concerto, the soloist’s role in this movement is largely one of accompaniment, until one of Rachmaninoff’s most familiar and beloved themes emerges. The music continues with a rousing march in the piano, which dissolves into a solo horn intoning the second theme.
The sensual beauty of the Adagio sostenuto creates an atmosphere of enchanted otherworldliness. The primary melody is heard first in the clarinet and flute, with the piano accompanying. The soloist takes up the melody and develops it, with accompanying woodwinds and strings.
In the Allegro scherzando, the lower instruments murmur a brief introduction to the soloist’s opening showy cadenza, which segues into the staccato pulsing rhythm of the first theme. The violas and solo oboe’s lyrical second theme is a marked contrast. The two themes vie for prominence as the mood of this movement shifts abruptly from jittery agitation to ecstatic rhapsody. Rachmaninoff concludes with a pull-out-all-the-stops ending showcasing the rhapsodic theme.
Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
Work composed: 1888–89
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: January 28, 2013; Carlos Kalmar, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, tam-tam, 2 harps, and strings
Estimated duration: 25 minutes
Why would a young man in good health, embarking on a promising career in both composition and conducting, turn his attention from bold, dramatic works to write about death? Since the first performance of Richard Strauss’ 25-minute tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, which he conducted on June 21, 1890, the perceived incongruity of composer and subject has puzzled listeners, even while they acknowledge the power and depth of Strauss’ musical imagination.
Most of Strauss’ tone poems are musical realizations of literary subjects, from Don Juan and Don Quixote to Macbeth and Till Eulenspiegel. Death and Transfiguration is an exception. Strauss came up with the idea on his own, independent of any pre-existing literary inspiration. At the premiere, Strauss’ friend Alexander Ritter provided a program in the form of a poem based on Strauss’ original concept.
In 1894, Strauss wrote a letter in which he described the narrative arc of Death and Transfiguration:
“It was six years ago when the idea occurred to me to represent the death of a person who had striven towards the highest ideals, therefore very probably an artist, in a tone poem. The sick man lies in a bed, asleep, breathing heavily and irregularly; agreeable dreams conjure a smile on to his features in spite of his suffering; his sleep becomes lighter; he wakens; once again he is racked by terrible pain, his limbs shake with fever – as the attack draws to a close and the pain resumes, the fruit of his path through life appears to him, the idea, the Ideal which he has tried to realize, to represent in his art, but which he has been unable to perfect because it was not for any human being to perfect it. The hour of death approaches, the soul leaves the body, in order to find perfected in the most glorious form in the eternal cosmos that which he could not fulfill here on earth.”
Strauss’ music closely follows this schema. The hushed opening has been likened to the uneven breathing or heartbeat of the dying person. Solo woodwinds over rippling harp arpeggios suggest the “agreeable dreams,” which are brutally disrupted by an agitated interlude for orchestra, full of “terrible pain, limbs shaking with fever.” Gradually the fever passes and the lyrical fragments of melody return, soothing both body and mind. Once again the music shifts, and for the first time Strauss’ “transfiguration” theme appears, sweeping through the orchestra. This melody embodies Strauss’ lofty Ideal, which survives death. When the orchestra plays it full force, with soaring brasses and a gorgeous countermelody for horn – not coincidentally Strauss’ instrument – it has all the power and impact Strauss could have wished for.
According to many biographers, as Strauss lay on his deathbed he remarked to his daughter-in-law, “Funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.”
© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz
Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media. www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com