John Donne and John Adams on Chastity

My favorite living composer is John Adams.  I’ve had the privilege of performing several of his pieces, and even meeting the composer on a few occasions.  His music is the sort of music that a lot of soundtracks are based off of–the difference being that he’s the “real deal,” and the movie composers steal his ideas.  (For any music aficionados who might be reading my blog, and who are curious, here’s a perfect example:  the soundtrack to The Tree of Life by Terence Malick, composed by Alexandre Despat would never have been imagined or created without John Adams.  Adams’s Harmonielehre is the real deal, while Despat is merely the imitation).

A few years back, I had the good fortune to play one of the first performances of Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, adapted from his opera of the same name.  In the symphony there is an amazing trumpet solo that I learned later was transcribed from an aria for baritone, where the libretto was based on Holy Sonnet 14 written by John Donne.

In John Adams’s own description of his work, “Doctor Atomic concerns the final hours leading up to the first atomic bomb explosion at the Alamagordo test site in New Mexico in July of 1945. The focal characters are the physicist and Manhattan Project director, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.”  The trumpet solo that I fell in love with was the finale of the first act, and featured Oppenheimer singing poignant words from John Donne, which apparently Oppenheimer was reading while the Manhattan Project was under way.

I find the text, and the music, a beautiful representation of those who desire chastity in their lives, and yet find the challenge insurmountable at times.

Holy Sonnet 14

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.



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