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About this Piece

Composed: 1998
Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd + 4th = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet 2), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, percussion (almglocken, high anvil, large bass drum, chimes, small Chinese gongs, crotales, suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, low gongs, marimba, “ranch” triangles, shaker, large sleighbells, tam-tam, triangles, vibraphone, xylophone), guitar, 2 harps, piano, celesta, sampler, and strings 

First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: February 19, 1999 (world premiere), Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting

In 1998 I heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform the Bruckner Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”) conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. I had known the Bruckner symphonies since my teenage years, but I’d rarely heard them in concert. Listening to the Philharmonic’s performance and contemplating the slowly evolving structures, with their peaks and valleys of acoustical and emotional energy, inspired me to write a modern version of that Brucknerian approach to symphonic form.

The result was Naive and Sentimental Music, a three-movement symphony lasting some 45 minutes and bearing a mysterious title borrowed from the German poet and dramatist Schiller (the same Schiller who wrote the “Ode to Joy” text used by Beethoven). In a famous essay, “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” Schiller proposed that all creative artists fall into one of two essential types. They can be “naïve,” in the sense that their creation – their music or painting or poetry or whatever art – springs forth spontaneously and virtually without effort. For them the act of creating a work of art is achieved with little or no internal conflict. Mozart, Schubert, Gershwin, Picasso, Stevie Wonder would come to mind as examples of Schiller’s “naïve.”

The “sentimental” artists, on the other hand, are those who are painfully aware of the historical context in which they make their art. “Style” and “reference” are major concerns, and the act of creation is above board, “conscious” and deliberate. Irony and appropriation are key elements for them. Thomas Mann, James Joyce, Arnold Schoenberg, and, more recently Frank Zappa and Jeff Koons would qualify as candidates for “sentimental” artists in this formulation.

When I thought about my own music in Schiller’s terms it occurred to me that it’s nearly impossible for someone writing symphonic music in our era to be “naïve,” at least in the way Schiller imagined the term. The sound of the symphony orchestra is by now an extremely familiar convention, despite the efforts of some modernist composers like Penderecki, Stockhausen, Xenakis, or Kurtág to “extend” its timbres and modes of execution. Writing for the orchestra therefore is a gesture done in the context of deep historical awareness, just as a Thomas Pynchon novel, for all its picaresque tone and up-to-date subject matter, is freighted with the full burden of literary history in its every sentence. 

I named my Brucknerian symphony Naive and Sentimental Music because, when I examined my own music, what I saw was a composer who, consciously or not, was trying to integrate both the “naïve” and the “sentimental,” often in the same musical structure. Jung would call that impulse “differentiation,” the struggle within the psyche to harmonize polarized energies – thinking vs. feeling; sensation vs. intuition. So the conceit for this symphony would be a play between the two poles of “naïve” and “sentimental.” 

The symphony begins with the “naïve” theme, a long, winding lyrical tune that floats above a gentle strumming in the harps, piano, and guitar. This melody sets out on a journey that will take it through any number of unexpected regions, some of them chaotic and on the brink of violence. It’s not unlike one of those young characters in a Dickens novel who manages to maintain his or her identity in the midst of a seemingly endless chain of turbulent events.

A languid and quietly melancholy second movement, “Mother of the Man,” features solos for steel-string guitar and bassoon, both of whom play against a backdrop of octave strings that may have been suggested by the slow scudding and gradual shape-shifting of distant clouds above a desert landscape. This quiet, almost motionless idyll is briefly disturbed by a short orchestral crescendo that peaks only to return to the original guitar melody, a meditation handed over at the end to low brass who resolve it into an almost total stillness.

“Chain to the Rhythm” begins with repeated motivic fragments that morph into larger figures, building (minimalist style) ever larger chains of melody. As the piece moves through time it gains mass and energy, my own peculiar response to the patient, deliberate growth one sees in Bruckner’s finales. This first part of “Chain to the Rhythm” functions also as the symphony’s “scherzo,” especially in the burbling and chirping passage where the clarinets play over a bouncing rhythm in the double basses.

The rhythmic and harmonic DNA present in the first bars culminates with its final moments with the resonant energy and full acoustical power of 100-plus instruments. The aim here was to make the orchestra sound not only massive (as it does in Bruckner) but also fleet and capable of high velocities, a kind of “vehicle of transcendent potential.”

– John Adams