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Bruce Adolphe (1955)

Memory Believes (a requiem)

December 3, 2023: Bruce Adolphe, Composer

Bruce Adolphe is known to millions of Americans from his public radio show Piano Puzzlers, broadcast weekly on Performance Today since 2002. But his talents and interests are so broad as to connect “neuroscience, human rights, nightmares, or dinosaurs” with his many career pursuits as composer, author, lecturer, and performer. Among his works based on writings of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind for cello and two percussionists—on a text Damasio wrote specifically for the project—received its premiere by Yo-Yo Ma in 2009 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

On other science themes, Adophe’s Einstein’s Light was premiered and recorded by violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Marija Stroke, and his tribute to NASA scientist and astronaut Piers Sellers, I saw how fragile and infinitely precious the world is, was performed in 2019 at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Among his human rights works are I Will Not Remain Silent for violin and orchestra and Reach Out, Raise Hope, Change Society for chorus, wind quintet, and three percussionists—both are both recorded on the Naxos/Milken Archive label.

Some other career highlights include Itzhak Perlman’s world premiere of Adolphe’s The Bitter, Sour, Salt Suite at the Kennedy Center and Avery Fisher Hall, Angel Blue singing the world premiere of Water Songs at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the premieres of two full-length operas on Jewish subjects at the 92nd Street Y, and ten world premieres at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Among the many other artists who have performed his works are Fabio Luisi, Daniel Hope, Sylvia McNair, Carlo Grante, the Washington National Opera, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Kahane and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Zürich Philharmonia and Chamber Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, ROCO in Houston, the IRIS Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Chicago Chamber Musicians, the Brentano String Quartet, the Miami Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, the Currende Ensemble of Belgium, members of the Silk Road Ensemble, and over sixty symphony orchestras worldwide.

Resident lecturer and director of family concerts for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Adolphe concurrently serves as composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute. He is also the founding creative director of The Learning Maestros and artistic director of the Off the Hook Arts Festival.

Adolphe is the author of several books, including Visions and Decisions: Imagination and Technique in Music Composition (Cambridge, 2023) and The Mind’s Ear, which has already merited a third edition (2021) with Oxford University Press (OUP). He contributed the chapter “The Musical Imagination: Mystery and Method in Musical Composition” to the recently published Secrets of Creativity: What Neuroscience, the Arts, and Our Minds Reveal (OUP, 2019). He also contributed the chapter “The Sound of Human Rights: Wordless Music that Speaks for Humanity” to The Routledge Guide to Music and Human Rights (2022).

Note by the composer

Memory Believes (a requiem) is dedicated to the memory of my brother, Jonathan Adolphe (1952–2022).

The structure of the piece is as follows:

1. Meditation I for violin solo

2. Because I could not stop for Death (Emily Dickinson) for choir and quartet

3. Meditation II for cello solo

4. Are there not a thousand forms of sorrow (Ethan Canin) for choir and quartet

5. Meditation III for viola solo

6. Memory Believes (William Faulkner) for choir and quartet

7. Meditation IV for string quartet


1. Emily Dickinson, first stanza of Because I could not stop for Death:

“Because I could not stop for Death—

He kindly stopped for me—

The Carriage held but just Ourselves—

And Immortality.”

2. Ethan Canin, from A Doubter’s Almanac:

“Are there not a thousand forms of sorrow? Is the sorrow of death the same as the sorrow of knowing the pain in a child’s future?”

(Used with the kind permission of Ethan Canin)

3. William Faulkner, from Light in August: 

“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.”


I chose the first stanza of the Emily Dickinson text because my brother certainly did not stop for Death. In his final year, struggling with the pain of pancreatic cancer, Jon worked at his art with remarkable determination and intensity, creating pieces that would go to galleries in Europe that he would never visit in person.

The second text, by Ethan Canin, has haunted me ever since I read A Doubter's Almanac in 2016, and it needs no commentary.

I chose the quote from Light in August because Jon, who read most of the major writers of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, was a fan of Faulkner’s poetic prose, and because this quote uniquely captures a truth about the tapestry of memory, believing, knowing, and wondering in language that is as precise and lyrical as music. Like music, my brother’s paintings, especially his last ones, inhabit a spectral topography of texture and space, where memories, some that we shared but many more forgotten, can exist as gestures that can be believed, and that will endure longer than their sources can possibly be recalled or known. We can only wonder.”

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