‘Composing for today’: John Adams wins Erasmus Prize 2019

‘He has made contemporary classical music communicative again’, writes the jury of the Erasmus Prize about John Adams. This year’s theme was ‘Composing for today’, an area in which the American composer has more than earned his spurs. On Thursday 28 November King Willem-Alexander will personally hand him the prize money of €150,000 in Paleis op de Dam (Palace on Dam Square). – Including the accompanying adornments: a harmonica ribbon with memorable words by Erasmus about respect and appreciation for talent.

Various events have been organised around this award ceremony. In the evening, the laureate is central in Spot on John Adams of the Nieuw Ensemble in Muziekgebouw aan het IJ. Alongside music to music by Tan Dun and by Adams himself, the ensemble will play the world premiere of Pavane, corrodance, a tribute by Rick van Veldhuizen. In the following days Adams will work with students at the conservatories of The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht. Finally, the Italian feature film Io Sono l’Amore, for which Adams composed the soundtrack, will be screened in Utrecht on 1 December.

All well and good, but who is John Adams?

John Adams (1947) is one of the most performed living composers in the world. He has become a true public favourite, also in the Netherlands. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and Leila Josefowicz only recently performed his First Violin Concerto. But despite his international fame, Adams has no starlike airs and is remarkably relaxed. When conducting, he turns out to be a pleasant talker, drawing laughs from the audience with short, ironic explanations.

Before conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Dutch premiere of Scheherazade.2, he told the audience with a sardonic grin: ‘People thought I had invented a new computer program. Which suits the spirited lady I’m presenting in this violin concerto. – Indeed, the soloist (Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights) is besieged by an orchestra of fanatical ‘true believers’, but gloriously overcomes her attackers.

Current themes

Adams composed Scheherazade.2 out of dismay at the way women worldwide are maltreated and even killed. Adams often addresses current themes in his music. In 1987 he composed his opera Nixon in China, about the historical visit  from this American president to Mao and his wife fifteen years earlier. The intimate dance of Mao and his wife became a world hit as the orchestral work The Chairman Dances.

The heavy earthquake that shattered Los Angeles in 1994 led to the ‘Singspiel’ I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. After the attack on the Twin Towers on 9 September 2001 he composed the oratorio On the Transmigration of Souls, an impressive requiem for the thousands of victims. The development of the atomic bomb in New Mexico during the Second World War led to the opera Dr. Atomic, which had its premiere in 2005.


Perhaps his most famous work is The Death of Klinghoffer, which is now part of the standard repertoire of every opera house. Yet its premiere in 1991 caused controversy. The libretto is based on the Palestinian freedom fighters who killed a handicapped Judeo-American cruise passenger in 1985. Although Adams emphatically does not take a stand, Jewish organisations condemned his opera as anti-Semitic. – Several American opera houses cancelled the production.

During a series of performances at the Metropolitan Opera New York in 2014, Jewish demonstrators again took to the streets. That’s how I myself ended up in a fierce discussion with a demonstrator who condemned the opera for being heavily anti-Semitic. Though she had to admit not having seen or heard the production, she remained fiercely convinced that she was right. – It’s amazing that the opera doesn’t seem to arouse any resentment in Islamic circles.

The Bach of jazz

Adams clearly feels a strong bond with his homeland. He was born in Massachusetts in 1946 and grew up in a village in New Hampshire. His grandfather ran a dance hall on Lake Winnipesaukee, where his parents had met. His father played clarinet in brass bands and jazzy swing bands, in which his mother sang.

During summers the family would holiday with grandpa, in whose establishment Duke Ellington and his orchestra regularly performed. Little John was deeply impressed by his music. Especially on the day he was allowed to sit next to his jazz hero on the piano stool. ‘Ellington is the Bach of jazz’, he would say about this later.

At home, not only jazz records were played on the rickety pickup, but also recordings of Mozart and other classical composers. As a boy John Adams learned to play his father’s instrument and soon became a member of the same orchestras. From the age of ten he started composing himself and four years later already a piece of his was performed by the local orchestra.

John Adams (c) Vern Evans)

Culture shock

Adams got a small culture shock when he started studying composition at Harvard in 1965. His teachers Leon Kirchner and Earl Kim were ardent advocates of Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal music, which was unknown to him. For a short time he also used arithmetical composition techniques, but soon he felt trapped by this. He missed beauty of sound and emotion. At night he listened to records by The Beatles, wondering how he could bring these totally different worlds together.

The answer came when he discovered the minimal music of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. He developed his own style by linking repetitive motifs to the sound world of romantic composers such as Mahler and Sibelius, seasoning all this with a dash of jazz and American popular music. In 1985 he made his breakthrough with his compelling orchestral work Harmonielehre.

Schoenberg meets comics

The title refers to the book of the same name with which Schoenberg said goodbye to the romantic era at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1992 Adams composed Chamber Symphony, an infectious pastiche of musical styles. This came about when he studied Schoenberg’s groundbreaking Chamber Symphony opus 9 while his son was watching American comics on a television in the adjoining room.

As a composer Adams stopped playing the clarinet. But when he lost his father around the age of fifty, he dusted off his instrument and composed the three-part Gnarly Buttons. In it he forges all the above mentioned influences into a cheerful, musician-like and thoroughly American whole. He carelessly turns a Protestant hymn into jazzy clarinet runs and conjures up the Wild West with banjo music. This exciting piece will form part of the programme of the Nieuw Ensemble on 28 November.

Gradually Adams’ style became more eclectic. In his large-scale opera oratorio El Niño about the birth of Christ (2000) he combines minimalist driving rhythms with tranquil medieval singing, spicy close harmony, references to Bach and an overwhelmingly romantic lyricism. Critics sometimes complain that his later compositions border dangerously on kitsch, but with his euphonious style he manages to reach the heart of the common man.

– Precisely the reason why he was awarded the coveted Erasmus Prize.

John-Adams-Erasmusprijs-2019-uitreiking-Koning-Willem-Alexander klein

King Willem-Alexander congratulating John Adams, 28 November 2019

‘In accepting the honor I acknowledge that the world of artistic creation is as varied as there are artists who inhabit it, and there is no single ideal model of how an artist should or ought to behave.’

Adams spoke memorable words about the importance of the arts in his acceptance speech, showing himself to be a true kindred spirit of Erasmus. 

At the ceremony a short documentary about Adams’ recent opera ‘Girls of the Golden West’ (2019)  was played.

About theaderks

Thea Derks is a Dutch music journalist, who studied musicology at Amsterdam University. She' specialized in contemporary music and always has an eye open for women composers. In 2014 she wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw and in 2018 she published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to ‘Composing for today’: John Adams wins Erasmus Prize 2019

  1. Ger van den Beuken says:

    Briljant einde!

    Verstuurd vanaf mijn iHoover



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