About this Recording
GP690 - GLASS, P.: Glassworlds, Vol. 2 - Etudes, Books 1 and 2 (Horvath)
English  French  German 

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Glassworlds • 2

 

Philip Glass (b. 1937) discovered “modern” music while working as a teenager in his father’s Baltimore record shop. When he graduated with a master’s degree in composition from Juilliard in 1962, he had studied with William Bergsma, Vincent Persichetti and Darius Milhaud. His early works subscribed to the twelve-tone system and other advanced techniques. But in spite of some success (including a BMI Award and a Ford Foundation Grant), he grew increasingly dissatisfied with his music. “I had reached a kind of dead end. I just didn’t believe in my music anymore,” he said. A 1964 Fulbright Scholarship brought him to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger and met Ravi Shankar, the Indian sitar virtuoso. In their different ways, those two individuals transformed his work. Boulanger, in his words, “completely remade my technique,” and Shankar introduced him to “a whole different tradition of music that I knew nothing about.” He rejected his previous concepts and developed a system in which the modular form and repetitive structure of Indian music were wedded to traditional Western ideas of melody and simple triadic harmony.

After returning to the United States in 1967, he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble: three saxophonists (doubling on flutes), three keyboard players (including himself), a singer and a sound engineer. Embraced by the progressive art and theatrical community in New York City during the early 1970s, the Ensemble performed in art galleries, artist lofts and museum spaces rather than traditional performing art centres. It soon began to tour and make recordings, providing Glass with a stage on which to premiere and promote his ever-growing catalogue of works. It established him as a contemporary voice with something personal and thought-provoking to say, and since those heady early days he has never looked back. Although he has sometimes been labelled a “minimalist” along with composers such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley, Glass rejects the term.

Glass thrives on cooperation with other artists. With Robert Wilson—architect, painter and leader of the theatrical avant-garde—he created Einstein on the Beach in 1976, a four-and-a-half-hour multimedia event labelled an “opera” by its authors. There are now over two dozen operas and chamber operas in his catalogue, as well as numerous film scores (including Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Qatsi trilogy and the Academy Award-nominated The Hours), dance scores, ten symphonies, six string quartets, and concerti for diverse instruments. Now in his eighth decade, he shows no sign of slowing down.

Piano is Philip Glass’ primary instrument (he also studied violin and flute); he composes at the keyboard. With its seemingly contradictory elements of lyricism and percussiveness, it is in some ways the ideal medium for Glass’ musical language. With its deep roots in tradition (spanning the Classical, Romantic and Modern eras), the instrument embodies the composer’s desire to merge new ideas with classic forms. It is perhaps via piano (and, by extension, keyboard) that performers and listeners can make the most direct and personal contact with Glass’ musical genius. This complete Grand Piano Edition—which includes many premieres—expands our understanding of and appreciation for one of the most influential musical minds of our time.

Frank K. DeWald

 

“Piano solo concerts are among my favourite experiences, the most essential basic dialogue … Whatever happens is happening directly between me and the audience. It becomes the most direct expression.” These words from Philip Glass might be the key to understanding why he offered his most profound musical cycle—embodying two decades of musical evolution and discoveries—for the piano. The 20 sweepingly diverse and intricately melodic Etudes are his most beautiful and inventive musical achievement. They make an intensely intimate personal statement, like 20 gems of Glass’ music distilled down to its purest elements. This is the first body of work where I’m really welcoming the world of pianists into my world,” says the composer.

In the late 1980s, after the success of his piano solo concerts (crowned by an even more successful first solo album for CBS/Sony Masterworks), Philip Glass’ repertoire consisted mostly of his own transcriptions of other music (Mad Rush, for example, was originally for organ; Metamorphosis I–V derived from his music for the film The Thin Blue Line). “The Etudes were begun in the mid-’90s,” he says. “Their purpose was two-fold. First, to provide new music for my solo piano concerts. And second, for me to expand my piano technique with music that would enhance and challenge my playing.” He started composing the Etudes (formerly called Preludes in early ’90s interviews) in 1991, around the time he was composing Hydrogen Jukebox with Allen Ginsberg and String Quartet No. 5. The original set of six (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 10) was composed for Dennis Russell Davies on the occasion of his 50th birthday in 1994. WNYC commissioned Etude No. 6 in the same year for John Schaefer’s new music programme. Originally titled Now So Long After That Time, Glass wrote it while working on his Symphony No. 2 and La Belle et la Bête. Etude No. 7 was commissioned by the Sydney Festival in 1996 while Glass was scoring The Secret Agent with filmmaker Christopher Hampton, finishing his Cocteau Trilogy with the dance-opera spectacle Les Enfants Terribles, and composing his famous Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” based on the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno.

“I finished the first ten and didn’t write any piano music for years,” he recalls. “When I began to write piano music again, it seemed almost as if the second ten had been conceived before. Some of them I wrote very quickly; the last four I wrote in about three weeks. The first ten really have a pedagogical aspect to them for my own development. The second set have nothing or very little to do with that. I began working in the world of ideas … I did not put restrictions on the technique.”

Etudes Nos. 12 and 13 were commissioned by Bruce Levingston in 2005 and premiered in New York at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall under their original title, A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close. They date from the same time as Glass’ Seventh and Eighth Symphonies and the opera Waiting for the Barbarians. Etude No. 17 was commissioned for the 25th Anniversary of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, and premiered in 2012. The final three works, Etudes Nos. 18, 19 and 20, were commissioned by the Perth Festival in 2012 in honour of Glass’ 75th birthday, and premiered on February 16, 2013. According to Glass, “The last Etude (No. 20) was composed just after Godfrey Reggio’s latest film, Visitors, and follows closely its music.” But, in a glimpse into his creative process, he also notes, “Now I can’t remember which came first. I don’t know if I wrote the piano music first or if I wrote the music for the film first. … There’s a subterranean kind of, that is to say, an unseen development, that is always happening that one is not aware of.”

The Etudes of Book 1 are among the Glass pieces I have performed most often; No. 6 is one of my favourite encores. The only recording of Book I that was available for many years did not excite me, but while attending a recital in which the composer himself performed a selection I radically changed my view. Inspired by Glass’ own poetical pianism and helped by the hall’s acoustic, my instinct recreated them as if they were performed in a Lisztian or Rachmaninov-like manner and I suddenly understood their immense potential.

To detractors who may not know (or have forgotten) how Philip Glass performs live and think that I am taking too many liberties, I reply with the composer’s own words: “I can’t tell people how to play it [the music of the Etudes], and surely people won’t play it 100%. I wrote down very carefully the tempos that I play, but I doubt anyone will follow those tempos very strictly. That’s not the way pianists approach music and in a way, they’re right. … I was considering it [the piano etudes tradition] when I was composing. There’s a contemporary tradition too: the Ligeti Etudes are one … but then there are also the Debussy Preludes. It’s a 20th-century tradition to a degree.”

After completing Book II, Glass made some minor additions to Book I which link all the Etudes in a cyclic form development. “Now, if you listen to all of them together,” says Glass, “it’s almost like a self-portrait in a certain way, which I had unintended, and in another way was unavoidable.”

The first ten Etudes stood as a benchmark of elegance in Glass’s piano repertoire, going from sparkling, highly virtuosic oscillating patterns (Etudes Nos. 1 and 10), bleak obsessiveness (Nos. 3, 4, 7 and 9), melancholy (Nos. 2 and 8) and mournfulness (No. 5) to the thunderously dramatic, “Patetico” No. 6. The new set is something else entirely, expanding his harmonic language in new directions, with each one of them becoming its own microcosm. Oscillating patterns become an “Appassionato” (No. 11), trance-like (No. 12), playful (No. 13), or resonate with a previously unachieved grandeur (No. 15). An “American ballad” (No. 14) precedes its plaintive antithesis (No. 16). An “Agitato” (No. 17) and a breathtaking “Affannato” (No. 18) dissolve into a “Lento lugubre” (No. 19). The last movement, an arresting and brooding “Memento Mori,” concludes a 20-year musical journey by using, at its very end, the same material as the String Quartet No. 2.

I am very proud to have performed the world premiere of the complete cycle in Carnegie Hall on 9 January 2015. Having this opportunity made these words of the composer particularly meaningful to me: “In the end, the Etudes are meant to be appreciated not only by the general listener, but especially by those who have the ability and patience to learn, play and perform the music themselves.”

Nicolas Horvath
Edited Frank K. DeWald


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