It was Gustav Mahler who said: ‘The point is not to take the world's opinion as a guiding star, but to go one's way in life and work unerringly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.’ And for a composer whose time didn’t come until a good half century after his death – though when it did it, it connected completely with an entirely new generation – those words make a good modus operandi. We’re here this evening to celebrate and honour a composer who, like Mahler, has steered a path that bows neither to fashion nor to critical opinion. John Adams is one of music’s true originals, and a musician who’s managed that extraordinarily delicate balancing act of attracting enthusiastic critical opinion and popular acclaim to the extent that he is - that rare thing in contemporary music - good box office. He is also that increasingly rare thing in this day and age: a composer whose new pieces are recorded as they appear, while the works that have earned the status of modern classics are frequently re-recorded.
Last year alone, seven of his stage works were performed in venues as culturally different as Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The BBC’s current venture to open school-children’s ears to the wonders and variety of classical music, 'Ten Pieces', not surprisingly includes such magnificent chestnuts at Handel’s Zadok the Priest and the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But also there’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, John Adams’s response to accepting a ride in a friend’s sports car - and then perhaps regretting it!
Short Ride dates from 1986, by which time, we’d already been mesmerised by Shaker Loops from 1978, thrilled by Harmonium from 1980-81, which seemed to be rooted in the language of Minimalism but which reaches so much higher into the atmosphere, carrying an emotional weight that can almost overwhelm. Grand Pianola Music from 1982, with its culminating panel, ‘On the Dominant Divide’ celebrates the very inexhaustibility of tonality and which, 33 years on, can bring a smile to the face for its unashamed harnessing of humour, something many of us cherish in Adams’s music right up to Absolute Jest, a work still fresh in our ears from the San Francisco Symphony’s recent tour. And from the mid-80s there was Harmonielehre, with its nod to Arnold Schoenberg in its title, but also to the entire Western symphonic tradition in the way it galvanises an old form, the symphony, and makes it new – yet he never uses the term symphony. But the emotional punch it packs is as immediate and powerful as any of the symphonies whose memories it subtly stirs.
Those works emerged during the 1980s, works that preceded the seven operas and opera-oratorios that have taken John Adams’s name into some of the great houses of the world and not without controversy. What nearly all of these stage works have done is resurrect or perhaps revitalise a form that in its time – the 1930s – was a comparably re-vivifying force: Zeitoper or Opera of the Time, works that incorporated contemporary events and people. So when Nixon in China took the stage in Houston in 1987, most of its central characters were still alive - and yet Adams, like Verdi in Don Carlos, created a work where affairs of state, evoked with great power and sweeping gesture, are juxtaposed with the intensely personal and a level of emotional observation that supports such a seemingly extravagant comparison. When The Death of Klinghoffer was first seen in 1991, the events surrounding the hijacking of the passenger liner, Achille Lauro, were a mere five years old and the subject of the opera still stirs up passions – often from people who have never heard a note of the music. Doctor Atomic, from 2005, may have put a half century between the historical event and the operatic vision but the issues it engages with are as relevant and concerning as they have always been. And The Gospel according to the Other Mary, from just two years ago, explores the final weeks of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus but the words fold time back on itself drawing on writers whose lives were, or are, lived in our time, attaching timeless emotions to a story that will never be ‘dated’.
An artist is expected to grow, to develop, to – simply put – be continually original and John Adams has not let us down. His 2002 New York Philharmonic commission, to remember those lost in the appalling events of September the 11th 2001, On the Transmigration of Souls, is a work of enormous power but delivered with extraordinary poise and subtlety. It’s not, as he’s written, a ‘requiem’ or ‘memorial’ but achieves something much more individual – it offers the listener a space, ‘a memory space’ he called it, to enter complete with their own thoughts. And, like all great art, it makes the painfully individual collectively universal.
John Adams’s life has taken him from the East Coast to the West; and that’s as much a philosophical and aesthetic migration as a geographical one. And it has perhaps given this ‘secular liberal living in Berkeley, California’ as he has described himself, a particular take on faith and religion – so The Gospel According to the Other Mary, or El Niño, or even Doctor Atomic – all works that were created in collaboration with that restlessly inquisitive spirit, Peter Sellars – debate yet, above all, lay bare man’s essential humanity. And in a very different way, the setting of Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser, from 1989, speaks with an emotional power that is enormously touching – the raw humanity of Whitman’s poetry, born of one man’s selfless devotion, in the act of nursing, to another, finds a powerful analogue in John Adams’s music. John Adams is among the most powerful musical voices in modern America; but the fact that we are honouring him here in London is testament to the universality of his language. English National Opera, the Barbican and the BBC, in particular, have championed his music with great devotion and admiration, and we in the UK have developed a real taste for the music of a composer – and conductor – who speaks in a language that is both modern and accessible without ever seeking an easy path to communication.
He’s given his time selflessly to young musicians, as teacher, mentor and collaborator, as students at the Academy well know. The buzzing energy that marked out the Academy-Juilliard collaboration in 2012 as so extraordinary went hand in hand with the open-hearted joy those students felt at having forged such an inspirational new musical friendship with their conductor, and profound gratitude for John Adams’s artistic generosity. Today those who have benefitted from his experience and wisdom, return that generosity in the form of an honorary degree. It is truly well deserved.
Homepage photo: Dame Jenny Abramsky, Chair of the Governing Body of the RAM, John Adams and RAM Principal Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (Photo: Royal Academy of Music)