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Classical 101

American Composer Philip Glass Turns 80, and Cuts The Cake at Carnegie Hall

Philip Glass performs "Book of Longing" in Milan, 2008.

There have been 78 world premieres at Carnegie Hall to date, beginning with Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, the "New World Symphony," which premiered Dec. 16, 1893.

American composer Philip Glass will raise that number to 79 world premieres next week, on Jan. 31, and what's more, he'll do it on his 80th birthday.

This won't be Philip Glass's first world premiere at Carnegie Hall, of course. His last work to make its grand debut at the illustrious hall was his Symphony No. 6 "Plutonian Ode" for soprano and orchestra, Feb. 3, 2002.

As with Glass' last Carnegie premiere, The Bruckner Orchester Linz, under Music Director Dennis Russell Davies, will perform the work. Russell has conducted all of the composer's previous symphonic repertoire.

This time, Glass will take a seat amid an avid audience for his Symphony No. 11.


Not a Minimalist

When music students learn about Glass in college, he is generally lumped together with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and John Adams, their output then labeled simply as MinimalismBut when interviewed, Glass has time and time again rebuffed this notion of the collective title:

“The problem is no one is doing minimalism now. It’s music we wrote in the 1970s. It’s over 30 years out of date. It’s a crazy idea to use a description made up by journalists and editors to cover all kinds of music. It’s more confusing than descriptive.” —Glass, in an interview with The Guardian

It is a little silly to continue labeling music by a title used for over 40 years, when the composer has been quite active and exploratory in the meantime. Over the years, Glass has written 11 symphonies, 26 operas, 20 ballets and dozens of works for solo instruments, as well as film and theater scores.

So what do we call his output? How can his newer works be labeled if not "minimalism" when they still share characteristics of the oeuvre? 

The best place to start might be to look at where Philip Glass has been and where his trajectory continues to take his works now, 40 years later.

So who is Philip Glass?

Born in Baltimore in 1937, Glass was the son of a record-shop owner and a librarian. His parents took upon themselves the humanitarian work of inviting Holocaust survivors to stay in their home during Glass' childhood. 

In his biography, Glass describes his father's fascination with music and new recordings: 

"My father was self-taught, but he ended up having a very refined and rich knowledge of classical, chamber, and contemporary music. Typically he would come home and have dinner, and then sit in his armchair and listen to music until almost midnight. I caught on to this very early, and I would go and listen with him." —Glass, "Words Without Music: A Memoir"

Credit Wikipedia
Glass performs in Milan, 1993.

His early musical influences included Hindemith, Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Beethoven and most especially Schubert. By the age of 15, Glass had already been accepted into an accelerated program for mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago. 

Between the ages of 15 and 23, the composer met established composers and teachers such as Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma, as well as fellow students at Julliard, Steve Reich and Peter Schickele. In 1960, he met and studied with the great Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Music Festival.

Just four years later, he went on to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the greatest composition educator of the 20th century. 

Glass returned to the U.S. to work in New York City in 1967, and soon after established a nonconformist ensemble with fellow ex-Julliard students including Steve Reich and Jon Gibson. It was from 1967 to 1974 that Glass put out what he and his fellow musicians consider to reside within the essential parameters of true Minimalism.

From this, we can see the outline of an incredibly virtuosic composer established by the ripe old age of just 37. It makes a good deal of sense that the work of a composer of 80 years would seriously differ from the work of his formative years, however stellar his music was before his 40th birthday.

So happy birthday to the great American operatic, Minimalist, Structuralist, Experimental, Post-Romantic, Neo-Romantic, New Music, boundary-pushing composer Philip Glass.

Credit Wikipedia
Philip Glass in Milan, 1993.