Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony


John Adams’s Doctor Atomic Symphony, a condensed instrumental version of his opera Doctor Atomic, tells of the despair that the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer felt as he and his team worked on the first atomic bomb.

An ever-present threat in the Doctor Atomic Symphony

An ever-present threat, a nearly boundless savageness and a beauty which always seems to be on the verge of collapse – the Doctor Atomic Symphony is Adams’s condensed instrumental one-movement (in three parts) version of his opera Doctor Atomic. It tells the story of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer during the period in which he and his team worked feverishly to create the first successful atomic bomb explosion.

A psychological horror story

This is a psychological horror story about a man plagued by moral dilemmas. Like the opera itself, Oppenheimer’s despair culminates in the aria ‘Batter My Heart’, which sets a sonnet by the English poet John Donne (b. 1572, d. 1631). Oppenheimer prays to God and begs, ‘… bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’ The aria is a crucial moment in the symphony as well, despite now being a trumpet solo in the third movement, Trinity. The unexpected choice of this instrument lends to the lamentation melody an almost Renaissance character.

It says something about the eclectic composer Adams that he has managed in a single work to incorporate Purcell-like music with the kind of violent force of timpani and brass reminiscent of Varèse, within a structure recalling that of Sibelius’s Seventh – a work Adams himself claims has exerted a profound influence on him. Adams is a musical craftsman who does not shy away from any tool or material, and is open to incorporating or quoting influences high and low. The result is a totally unique musical language which also seems to resonate with a wide audience.

Rolf Hermsen