Program Notes: Takács Quartet Plays John Adams’ Absolute Jest

June 3, 2022

Fate Now Conquers (2020)

Carlos Simon
Born 1986 in Washington, D.C.

The American composer Carlos Simon writes concert music for large and small ensembles as well as film scores with influences of jazz, gospel, and neo-romanticism. The Philadelphia Enquirer described his music as ​“perfectly engaging and propulsive.” 

Simon received a B.A. in Music (with concentrations in piano and composition) from Morehouse College and an M.M from Georgia State University. He studied composition with Robert Tanner, Uzee Brown, TJ Anderson, and Nicktas Demos. In 2017, Simon joined the inaugural class of the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music and then went on to be named a Sundance/​Time Warner Composer Fellow in 2018; he received the Sphinx Medal of Excellence in 2021. For the 2021-2022 season, he was Composer-In-Residence at the Kennedy Center.

Simon has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Washington National Opera. 

His work has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Hub New Music Ensemble, the Asian/​American New Music Institute, the Flint Symphony, at the 2021 Ojai Festival by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and at the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. In 2018, Carlos’ string quartet, Elegy, honoring the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, was performed at the Kennedy Center.  Upcoming performances of his works include concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, San Diego Symphony, and Sphinx Virtuosi. 

Simon composed Fate Now Conquers as a response to Gabriela Lena Frank’s request to write a musical response to Beethoven’s Symphonies 4,7, and 8. The piece premiered in September 2020 with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting.

Simon commented: “My personal process was to remind myself to just get out of the way and to not think too much. Beethoven is and was a MUSICAL GIANT! I wanted to pay homage to Beethoven but yet remain true to my artistic voice. 

“This is part of the intent of the piece — releasing one’s expectations and hoping for the best.”

Simon has written his own program note:
This piece was inspired by a journal entry from Ludwig van Beethoven’s notebook, written in 1815:
‘Iliad. The Twenty-Second Book
But Fate now conquers; I am hers; and yet not she shall share
In my renown; that life is left to every noble spirit
And that some great deed shall beget that all lives shall inherit.’
Using the beautifully fluid harmonic structure of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, I have composed musical gestures that are representative of the unpredictable ways of fate. Jolting stabs, coupled with an agitated groove with every persona. Frenzied arpeggios in the strings that morph into an ambiguous cloud of free-flowing running passages depict the uncertainty of life that hovers over us.
We know that Beethoven strived to overcome many obstacles in his life and documented his aspirations to prevail, despite his ailments. Whatever the specific reason for including this particularly profound passage from the Iliad, in the end, it seems that Beethoven relinquished [himself] to fate. Fate now conquers.

The music is scored for two flutes [one piccolo], two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.


Absolute Jest (2020)

John Adams
Born February 15, 1947, in Worcester, MA

John Adams is one of the best known and most often performed of America’s contemporary composers. As Andrew Porter wrote in The New Yorker, Adams is the creator of a “flexible new language capable of producing large-scale works that are both attractive and strongly fashioned. His is a music whose highly polished resonant sound is wonderful.”

In the music of his early maturity, Adams showed his discovery of a freer kind of advanced musical thought than he had learned at the University, and he took up many of the techniques and much of the aesthetics of the “minimalist” composers. It was not long, however, before he admitted himself to be “a minimalist who is bored with minimalism” and developed the balanced mixture of sustained repetition with either subtle or bold variation that distinguishes his work.

Adams has conducted orchestras and opera companies in Europe and the United States and has served as music director of numerous festivals. He has received numerous prizes, including the California Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts, the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, and the Pulitzer Prize for Music. From 2003 through 2007 he held the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall He conducted his opera, Nixon in China, at Metropolitan Opera debut in February 2011.

Absolute Jest, a single-movement concerto scored for string quartet and orchestra, was a commission from the San Francisco Symphony in celebration of its 100th anniversary. “I was suddenly stimulated by the way Stravinsky had absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language.” Absolute Jest is based primarily on fragments from the scherzos of Beethoven quartets, Op.131 and Op. 135, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and the Grosse Fugue, but unlike Stravinsky, who, in Pulcinella, updated large sections of previously composed material, Adams, in Absolute Jest uses brief, isolated, and originally unrelated fragments as building blocks for his construction.

Absolute Jest opens with a bouncing 6/8 pulse that recalls the scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Adams also uses “the ‘HammerklavierSonata, Symphony No. 8, and other archetypal Beethoven motives that come and go like cameo appearances on a stage.”

Upper strings and cowbells join, to a stunning effect. With these, Adams introduces a sonority foreign to Beethoven: the “tintinnabulation” (as Adams called it) of cowbells, harp, and piano all tuned in a special way, which means intonation as opposed to the standard Western tuning used for the rest of the ensemble. 

After the introduction, the solo quartet enters, picking up the Beethoven motive. Developed by the quartet and the orchestra, the motivic material is transformed into various surprising guises, in brilliantly Adamsian manner, with the quartet balanced against the large orchestra. Adams has explained: “The high-spirited triple-time scherzo to the F-major Opus 135 Quartet enters about a third of the way through Absolute Jest and becomes the dominant motivic material for the remainder of the piece.”

In the climactic final section, Adams says “a furious coda features the solo string quartet charging ahead at full speed over an extended orchestral pedal” based on a sequence of chords from the famous ‘Waldstein’ Piano Sonata. In the closing, there is a short duet for cowbells and detuned piano, which Thomas May has called a “final, enigmatic comment.”

Absolute Jest is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cowbell, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone), harp (special tuning), piano (special tuning), celesta, strings, and solo string quartet (lightly amplified). 


Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 (“From the New World”)

Antonín Dvořák
Born September 8, 1841, in Nelahozeves, Bohemia (now Czech Republic); died May 1, 1904, in Prague

When Dvořák came to New York in October 1892, as Director of the National Conservatory of Music, he was already a figure of worldwide reputation. Two months after his arrival in America, Dvořák began to sketch the New World Symphony. After the New York Philharmonic gave the symphony its first performance in December 1893, Dvořák said in a letter to his publisher in Berlin, “The Symphony was a splendid success. The newspapers say that no composer has ever had such a triumph. I was in a box and [Carnegie] Hall was filled with the best people in New York. They applauded so much that I felt like a king.” 

Despite or perhaps because of its success, the symphony quickly became the subject of great controversy. Some said that the work was based almost entirely on folk songs of the American Black and Indian peoples, while others found it typically Czech. Modern opinion asserts that Dvořák intended the New World Symphony to set an example for composers in the United States of what they could do with themes that were American in character and style, without actually quoting any folk songs. Regardless, it certainly awakened an American movement toward using homegrown resources.

Dvořák quickly became acquainted with music that was characteristically American. One of the most gifted of the eager, young people who flocked to his classes was a Black musician, Henry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), who later had a distinguished career as a composer and singer. Burleigh spent hours with Dvořák, singing spirituals and slave songs that completely captivated him and became an important part of his inspiration for the symphony. Shortly before the first performance, the composer said, “I am satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies. These can be the basis of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States.”
The New World Symphony is a splendid work in which Dvořák applies the musical methods he had learned from his mentor Brahms and his own musical ideas that become a subject for lively debate. In the first movement, this amalgam can be heard in the slow introduction, Adagio, and is present at length in the Allegro molto section. In this movement, the first theme, a melancholy dance, the flute and oboe play together; the second theme, based on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the flute introduces. 

The second movement begins with a hopeful yet nostalgic solo, one of the most famous English horn passages ever composed. Dvořák explained to a pupil of his that a transitional passage in the Largo, marked Un poco più mosso, is an “Indian girl’s sobbing.” Also, in this movement there is an episode where the oboe introduces a skipping new theme over the cello’s accompaniment. Dvořák said he intended to suggest the gradual awakening of animal life on the prairie here.
The Symphony continues with a sprightly dance-like movement, Scherzo, Molto vivace, which has been compared to a Native American dance with chanting. In the final Allegro con fuoco, the music seems to become less and less American in inspiration and more Czech with a rich pattern of connecting motives from the whole symphony, building to a tremendous climax near the end.

The score calls for piccolo and two flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, and strings. 

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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