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The Three Johns

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Photo by Deborah O'Grady

“It would be nice to hear someone say, ‘Look at that gas station in the moonlight. It’s pure John Adams.’ ” — John Adams, composer of  Nixon in China. [1]

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross recently blogged about two different composers named John Adams, distinguished by their middle names of Luther and Coolidge. This common American name is possessed by some of the most uncommon Americans, and the Music Division is home to works by and about no fewer than three John Adamses, known and unknown, from men of history to our vital contemporaries.

From Patriotic Melodies, in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, comes “Adams and Liberty,”  a 1798 tribute to founding father John Adams set to the music of  John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreontic Song.” This music was later to become the tune to which a poem by one Francis Scott Key would be set – becoming no less than our National Anthem.

In the general Music Collections is a volume with the long and rather unmusical title,  5000 musical terms : a complete dictionary of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, German, Spanish, English, and such other words, phrases, abbreviations, and signs as are to be found in the works of Auber, Beethoven, Bertini … and other eminent musical composers, written by John Stowell Adams, who also wrote music of his own that can be found in the collection of African-American Sheet Music in American Memory as well as in the Civil War Sheet Music section of the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.

Finally, composer John Adams is coming to the Library to read from his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing An American Life in a special May 14 noontime event. The reading will be followed by a conversation and brief question-and-answer session, hosted by Music Division curator Loras John Schissel.

Over a slice or three of chocolate cake, Schissel recently explained to me that Adams has an appeal that goes beyond the music. The subjects of his most noted operas, Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic (about the Los Alamos atomic bomb trials), draw in audiences fascinated by the crossroads of history and the theatrical spectacle.  The Los Angeles Times describes Adams as “the voice of America,” whose music–opera, chamber, and symphonic–stands out in contemporary classical composition for its depth of expression, brilliance of sound, and the profoundly humanist nature of its subjects.

Free and open to the public!

Friday, May 14, 2010
12:00 p.m.
Whittall Pavilion
Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress

For additional information contact Solomon Haile Selassie 202 707 5347
Request ADA accommodation 5 days in advance, 202-707-6362 or [email protected]

[1] Quoted in Ross, Alex, “The harmonist.” The New Yorker 8 Jan. 2001: 42.

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