John Adams: “El Niño”

As a native Southern Californian, the phrase “El Niño” conjures up associations of rain—lots of it. However, as a classical music lover, it also brings to mind the title of John Adams’s marvelous Christmas oratorio.

You’re so close, Chris Farley! “El Niño” is actually Spanish for the Christ child.

Composed in the year 2000, El Niño is sort of a distant, twenty-first-century cousin of Handel’s Messiah. (I wrote about a twentieth-century equivalent last year, which you can check out here.) Adams’s music and text settings are amazingly eclectic. Here, old texts from the Gospels (both the traditional and the Apocrypha), Martin Luther, and the Wakefield Mystery Plays fit comfortably alongside contemporary poetry by Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American authors. The music is similarly wide-ranging, encompassing Gregorian chant and grand choruses to minimalism and bebop. The result is a dazzling and ultimately, profoundly moving account of the Christmas story.

To celebrate the Christmas season, here are a handful of my favorite excerpts from Adams’s oratorio. The complete work can be heard in the Spotify playlist at the end of this post.

1. The Babe Leaped in Her Womb/Magnificat

Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth is given an intriguing musical treatment in Adams’s oratorio. Setting words from the King James Version of Luke’s Gospel, three countertenors (who act as narrators throughout the work) recount the story above a gentle instrumental backdrop—colored by guitar and tuned percussion—with occasional interpolations from the chorus. The titular phrase “The babe leaped in her womb” is set with buoyant cross-rhythms—a delightfully ear-catching moment.

Following this is Mary’s famous canticle of praise—the Magnificata text that has been set by countless composers. Adams’s version is mostly reserved, yet brims with awe at the magnanimity of Mary’s situation. (In the oratiorio’s only official recording to date, this portion is ravishingly sung by the American soprano Dawn Upshaw.)

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John Adams: “Naïve and Sentimental Music”

This is the first installment of a new series I am calling Quick TakesSince I am a busy grad student and don’t always have boatloads of time to write lengthy, in-depth blog posts (as much as I would like that!), Quick Takes will hopefully allow me to generate more occasional posts that shorter and blurb-like. Each will be around 250-500 words (roughly speaking) and focus on one specific item – a favorite piece of mine, a composer who I am currently into, or anything else of musical interest.


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American composer John Adams (b. 1947)

John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. His music, which ranges from full-length operas to concerti, is filled with stunning harmonic worlds, inventive orchestrations, and an irresistible groove that seems innately “American.” (It’s also extremely difficult stuff to play – trust me, I speak from personal experience!) Many of his pieces – especially those from his so-called “minimalist” phase like Short Ride in a Fast Machine, The Chairman Dances, and Harmonium – have become twentieth-century classics. However, a bit lesser known are some of his more recent works from the last twenty years, when Adams began to develop and expand his musical palette.

One such work is Naïve and Sentimental Music, a vast, three-movement “symphony” that was premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen in February 1999. Sadly, this piece doesn’t turn up in concert all that often, possibly due to the immense orchestral forces required and the sheer challenge of the music itself. Further, only one commercial recording currently exists (albeit a fantastic one by the LA Phil – posted below), but the Royal Scottish National Orchestra will be releasing the work’s second recording in May.

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“Bite-sized” Masterpieces

Want to hear to some great music but don’t have the time (or attention span) to sit down and listen to a whole opera or an hour-plus-long symphony? Have no fear! There are plenty of pieces of classical music out there that don’t take a Bruckner-sized chunk out of your day; works that are mere minutes long, in fact. (Interestingly, the French composer Darius Milhaud wrote three operas that are each around ten minutes long!) Here are a six of my favorite “bite-sized” masterpieces, all of which are self-contained works that are seven minutes or less (not movements from a longer piece). Overall, it’s only about twenty-five minutes of music total. That’s basically one episode of The Office!

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Mahler’s Symphony No. 3?

1. Igor Stravinsky: Greeting Prelude (1955)

Combine one of the most famous composers of the twentieth-century with one of the most famous tunes in the world and you get Igor Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude. Stravinsky composed this short orchestral arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in 1955, as an 80th birthday present for the French conductor Pierre Monteux (who had conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s infamous Rite of Spring back in 1913). Clocking in at less than a minute long, the Greeting Prelude is far from a straightforward adaptation. Stravinsky transforms this simple (and rather banal) melody into a brief showpiece for orchestra, full of wide leaps, unusual chords, and cheeky wit, resulting in a surprisingly amusing setting of the song that has been embarrassing birthday “guests of honor” for decades.

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