I first came across Thomas Adès' music at one of the yearly Chicago Humanities Festivals, where with the composer sitting some three seats away from me, I heard a rendition of his Arcadiana string quartet. It made such a deep impression on me that it feels like yesterday, but Google assures me it was fourteen years ago. I then got a CD of Adès' opera "Powder Her Face," and it reinforced in me the belief that Mr. Adès is a major composer. His latest opera "The Tempest" strongly confirms this belief. Moreover, at Carnegie Hall I heard a recital by the tenor Ian Bostridge with Thomas Adès at the piano. Not only is Adès a major composer, but he is clearly a major pianist as well. I mention all this, because with such a background, I did not hesitate a moment to purchase the Adès-Service book.
This is not to say it could not have been a dud, think Richard Wagner's "Das Judentum in der Musik." But the Adès-Service book transcends even my highest expectations. Thomas Adès lives music, and is able to accurately describe how he does that. He feels that notes exert a force on each other, he calls it a magnetic force, and this force sets the notes in motion and a piece of music develops.
In the course of this conversation with Mr. Service, who much to his credit holds his own, we get many a detail about what went into this or that Adès composition, as well as how major musicians fare in Adès' estimation. Brahms and Wagner, the two major, mutually antagonistic, German composers of the second half of the nineteenth century, both get their comeuppance. But they do so through readily understandable arguments. We are told that a country willing to take seriously Wagner's Kundry, without even cracking a smile, let alone roaring with laughter at a woman sleeping for aeons, and only waking when Wagner visits a "horrible chord" on her, marked this country for serious upcoming trouble. This brings to mind Oscar Wilde's quip "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."
As to Brahms, Adès differentiates the composer of the "Song of Destiny," whom he identifies as the real Brahms, a "big passionate country symbolist peasant dreamer and poet", from the composer of the four symphonies whom he calls "a phoney." I too have made the distinction of these two "Brahmses," except that as far as I am concerned, with the exception of a few lieder, I dislike the vocal-music-Brahms and revere the symphonist. But then, in matters musical I cannot but yield to Adès. And then, there is the fact that the great composer Francis Poulenc also turned on Brahms, "All of Schumann's faults and none of the genius." The real question becomes, why Brahms affects great composers so very differently from how he affects the rest of us.
For that matter, on Mahler's "Symphony of a Thousand" (the eighth) we agree fully: Adès sees it as a major embarrassment for its composer, while my reaction to this work has always been that the civilization which produced something this pretentious and bombastic was bound to fall apart soon, and indeed, at the end of WWI the Habsburg Empire ended its centuries-long existence.
Much to my pleasure, the list of composers admired by Adès includes Beethoven, Berlioz, Liszt, Stravinsky, Nancarrow, Berg, Kurtág and Ligeti. It is a pity that Ligeti's opera "Le Grand Macabre" does not come up in the conversation. After all, there is this marvelous chain of operatic coloratura soprano roles starting with Mozart's Queen of the Night, continuing with Richard Strauss' Zerbinetta, then Ligeti's Police Chief and for the time being ending with Adès' Ariel.
All in all, this is a marvelous book and its high point is the announcement that Adès is working on a new opera based on Luis Buñuel's movie "The Exterminating Angel," something to look forward to.