Tone Poem Tuesday

A piano concerto, today, and a very modern one at that: composed in 2018 and premiered a year later, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is the third piano concerto by composer John Adams.

Adams is best known for his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, but he has been a prolific composer in many genres, and he may well be the best known contemporary American composer alive, aside from possibly film composers like John Williams. Adams has had a long career and thus his work has evolved over the years, but he is most often characterized as a “minimalist”, writing works that often rely on repeated rhythmic and melodic motifs. This piece is no different.

Cast in three movement-like sections that are played without pause, the concerto deploys a number of interesting effects, like giving the piano a kind of honky-tonk sound. The second movement uses a minimalist kind of lyricism, and the last movement returns to the upbeat feel of the first, but with a more care-free, dancelike character. The three sections are given these tempi by Adams:

  1. Gritty, funky, but in Strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like
  2. Much Slower; Gently, Relaxed
  3. Più Mosso: Obsession / Swing

That first is particularly interesting: “Twitchy, Bot-like”, as if to suggest a mechanistic feel in the first movement that slowly gives way throughout the work until the last movement takes on a more improvisational feel.

Here is Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?, by John Adams.


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