GLASS, P.: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3
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Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3
The now-legendary career trajectory of composer PhilipGlass, from serious student to art-scene impresario, thedriving of a cab and the weathering of downright hideousreviews thrown in as a cautionary tale to give youngcomposers sleepless nights, has almost superseded hisrather important music. As a composer, his is a generous,singular, unwavering mind; as a citizen of thecommunity, he is kind, giving, and notably avuncular andoptimistic. But it is his music that most people tend tooverlook, his carefully wrought experimentalcompositions which, if their sound--too individual toimitate without plagiarism--has not spawned generationsof imitators, their spirit certainly has.
Born in Baltimore in January, 1937, Glass becamefamiliar with music through his father, who was a radiorepairman and record salesman. After attending theUniversity of Chicago, where he studied mathematics,with music as his principal distraction, he went to NewYork to study at the Juilliard School. There he wasextremely prolific, though he was writing music that isnothing like the work we know him for today. Like allgood composers of his generation, he went to Paris tostudy with Nadia Boulanger, the twentieth century'sgreatest teacher, but it was not through her tutelage thatthe apocryphal scales would fall from his eyes, butthrough a fortuitous work-for-hire job he gottranscribing and notating Indian music played by RaviShankar. He withdrew all his earlier work, and began touse these Eastern techniques in his experimental music.
Glass formed his own, self-named ensemble - hisapproach was, and has always been, very D.I.Y. - andwrote long, repetitive process pieces for them, the mostfamous of them being Music in Twelve Parts (anevening length concert work) and Einstein on the Beach(a full-scale opera, and his first collaboration withdirector and co-visionary Robert Wilson). These stillinfluentialworks serve as a pair of musical \shots heard'round the world" for many members of New York'sdowntown experimental set. As he eschewed the usualconcert music venues, playing, instead, in the lofts, artgalleries and clubs which populated pre-commercialSoHo and TriBeCa in the mid-1970s, his reputation,both as saint and blasphemer (depending on who youasked) grew.
The Philip Glass Ensemble continues to tour regularlywith many of the same members, and though he haswritten much music for them, a large portion of his outputcontinues to be for more traditional groups: there arestring quartets, concertos, tone poems, film scores, operas,and symphonies. And lately his bad reviews have turnedgood (proving the notion that to get good notices in theNew York press, one only need persevere long enough).
He continues, at this date, to be as prolific as ever.
The Second Symphony was originally commissionedby the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and its premi?¿retook place in 1994 there, with Dennis Russell Davies(a staunch Glass advocate, commissioning most of hisorchestral music) conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonicorchestra. It is cast in three movements, large paragraphs(as Glass is wont to do), more invested in polytonality,where music is in more than one key simultaneously,than many of his other more straightforward pieces,with the exception of his big opera Akhnahten. "Thegreat experiments in polytonality carried out in the1930s and 1940s show that there's still a lot of work tobe done in that area," says Glass, but, unlike the majorexperimenters with this sort of sound world (mostnotably French composers like Honegger and Milhaud)who just sort of shoved one key atop another to makefor rather crunchy harmonies, dissonances that bend theear yet still have all the benefits of normal tonal motion,form, and cadence, Glass is more interested in theambiguity this sort of language creates. It is the auralequivalent of looking at an Escher print - you hearthings differently depending on where you choose tofocus your ear.
The first movement is something of a slow burn,building in intensity, dank and a little screechier thanmany of Glass's "prettier" works, but ending in acalculated whimper; the second movement picks upwhere the first left off, equally dark, with a persistenceand a sombre quality which one might hear assomewhat despondent; the final movement, contra allthe fascinating murk of the preceding two, is spiritedand bright, favoured by bells and whooshing woodwinds,all swirling to a barnburning conclusion.
Though it bears the same title, Glass's Third Symphonyis quite a different experience from the second. This piece,composed on a smaller scale, was commissioned by theW??rth Foundation for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, whogave the first performance in K??nzelsau, Germany, inFebruary, 1995. When writing for a chamber orchestra,nineteen string players in this instance, it becomes lessabout orchestral texture and timbre, more about soloisticplaying, with each instrumentalist functioning more like amember of a string trio or quartet than of an orchestra.
With this in mind, Glass composed a much denser, moreintimate piece, cast this time in the traditional symphonicfour movements.
"The opening movement," writes Glass (in linernotes to a prior recording), "a quiet, moderately pacedpiece, functions as a prelude to movements two andthree, which are the main body of the symphony. Thesecond movement mode of fast-moving compoundmeters explores the textures from unison to multiharmonicwriting for the whole ensemble. It ends whenit moves without transition to a new closing theme,mixing a melody and pizzicato [plucked strings as opposedto being bowed] writing. The third movement is in theform of a chaconne, a repeated harmony sequence. Itbegins with all three celli and four violas, and with eachrepetition new voices are added until, in the finalvariation, all nineteen players have been woven into themusic. The fourth movement, a short finale, returns tothe closing theme of the second movement, whichquickly re-integrates the compound meters from earlierin that movement. A new closing theme is introduced tobring the Symphony to its conclusion."In both of these pieces, Glass returns (in his way) tohis Juilliard roots, writing polyharmonies, rousingfinales, and fully formed symphonic sprawls which arefar more redolent of, say, the Vincent Persichettis or theWilliam Schumans of his graduate school training thanthe Laurie Andersons or Terry Rileys of the SoHo 70s.
These symphonies, though longish in duration, are taut,constructed works, bearing their name not out of flashbut rather out of design. He did not just compose bigpieces for orchestra and attach a classy title, for thesepieces truly are symphonies in their scope, intention,and seriousness of purpose.Daniel Felsenfeld