Reading about the Adams’ creation, I was surprised by the aria “Batter My Heart” [Holly Sonnet written by John Donne}; which is sung by the main character of this opera (Oppenheimer). The first thing I liked about this before listening to the music, was Peter’s reason to use this text/poem for this Aria; the complete title is “Batter My Heart, three-person’d God”. This poem clearly states an expression of spiritual pain, and repentance.
After listening to this Aria, I found five main sections: The first, middle and final sections are just instrumental, the other two sections between them are with the voice.
The opening section is thirty-five measures long. It starts with a light texture approached by the winds, outlining D minor chord. The strings play just a D in full value notes. The only thing that changes for the strings throughout this opening section is the dynamic contrast (Crescendo and decrescendo). Although it has a kind of polyrhythm (4/4 in the strings and 12/8 on the woodwind section), it still has the sense of 12/8 thanks to the woodwinds triplet (eight note) motion.
The next section, starts with a pedal tone played by the cellos and trombones (both are in divisi). With no key signature, the harmony stills outlining just three chords: D minor, B flat major in first inversion and A major as a dominant chord for the main tonality. Throughout the entire voice section, Adams, wrote divisis for the low instrumentation; cellos, basses, trombones, bass clarinet (solo) and bassoons. The tempo feels slower. Adams used a 3/4, / 4/4 – 2/4 tempo progression. The dynamic range is less than the opening section and it never gets louder. The trio bassoon section outlines a counterpoint with the voice.
After the voice section, Adams wrote a ritornello section. This time, Adams used a single meter (4/4). The orchestration is dense; he combined clarinets, trombones and timpani with a strong fanfare with rhythmic interaction. The oboes, flutes and strings play the same figures. At the end of this particular section, we can find a “call and response” effect between the trombones and the trumpets; playing sixteenth notes starting with pick-ups to the strong beat of the measure.
The following section, again is connected by the trombones. This is the longer section for the voice: twenty-five measures quite the same than the first vocal section, and adding to that forty-two measures of a really high-range passage for the baritone. Here, Adams wrote almost six high G s to the baritone line; which is the highest note on a baritone range. Throughout this section, Adams used many of the low sections of the orchestra in divisi, I think he did that to create a deep and low atmosphere and to bring more variety to invert the D minor chord. The forty-two measures vocal section starts with a big change or texture; the strings play triplets in a 4/4 tempo and piano dynamic. After the strings statement, Adams started to create a “cloudy” texture the strings start to play the triplets in a syncopated rhythm. This time, the timpani has many solo duets in counterpoint with the baritone. My final comment for this section is the way Adams uses the first horn. (Which is the reason I think he used too many low instruments solo and divisis for this Aria). Therefore, I have the thought that the use of the first horn with a solo line in its middle range, can make the allusion of God listening to Oppenheimer.
The last section could be considered as a coda. It is the same in harmony, texture and orchestration. The last thirty-three measures of this Aria are just outlined by a D minor chord with a strong low-strings D pedal.
Finally, my conclusion is that the main purpose was to reflect the Oppenheimer’s conscience regrets, pain and repentance. I found really interesting that if we take a look on a broader perspective, we could see that the stronger motions of this Aria are three; the instrumental opening, ritornello and coda. Which outlines the idea of a Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).
Kvas, Kevin. “Batter His Art, Three-Personed Author-Gods”: Misreading John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14″ for a Sympathetic Stage and Screen Adaptation of J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic.” Cinephile 11, no. 3 (Fall/Winter2016 2016): 26-32. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed March
Adams, John Luther. “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life.” New York: Farrar, 2008.
Harrison, John. “Great Performances at the Met: Doctor Atomic.” Opera Journal 42, no. 3/4 (September 2009): 39-44. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed March 29, 2018).