Philip Glass

b. 1937


During the 20th century, new classical pieces were not always easy to listen to. Some of the most important works appealed to only a small number of people. There were exceptions – Benjamin Britten or Leonard Bernstein, for example – but a lot of ‘modern’ music put off listeners who wanted something more comfortable for their ears. Some began to wonder if ‘modern’ classical music would ever be popular again. Then along came a handful of American composers who wrote what was called ‘minimalist’ music. These composers liked to break music down into tiny little building blocks then experiment with different ways of putting them together, often repeating little phrases over and over again with gradual changes. One of these was Philip Glass.

Glass came from a family of musicians. His father ran a record shop and he and his son would listen to classical music late at night. Bartók, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Beethoven and Schubert were amongst their favourites. Glass learnt to play the flute and then the piano. He studied in Paris with a famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and fell in love with the music of Bach and Mozart; he also enjoyed film music. Then he heard a piece by the minimalist composer Steve Reich, and from this rich mix of musical influences he developed his new style.

The importance of rhythm and the way layers can be added on top of each other was something that Glass learnt partly from working on a film with two Indian musicians – Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. His three big operas, Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha and Akhnaten, are all based on real people (the scientist Albert Einstein, the Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi, and the pharaoh Akhnaten) who changed the world they lived in. He has written symphonic, chamber and film music as well.

Philip Glass helped to move classical music on to a new stage of development – one that had broader appeal, so more people started going to concerts and listening to it on the radio. He has worked with so many musicians from different countries and styles – legendary artists Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen, for example – and he has influenced younger musicians, such as the rock band Muse. But his music is still rooted in the western classical tradition of his beloved Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

Phillip Glass, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Some music by Glass to reflect on...

Violin Concerto No. 1: III. –

This characteristic piece of minimalism, taken from Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 1, has great forward drive. There is both repetition (the main ingredient of minimalism) and variety. Listen to how it gets louder and softer while the notes repeat underneath. Very dramatic!

Performers: Adele Anthony, violin; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554568

Symphony No. 4 ‘Heroes’: VI. V2 Schneider

This is the final movement of Glass’s Symphony No. 4 ‘Heroes’ – a reworking of an album by David Bowie and Brian Eno. Violas begin with an insistent little idea – just as you get used to this, flutes come in with a contrasting rhythm. More rhythms then cross over with each other as an exciting sound picture develops…

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559325

Akhnaten: Prelude

This prelude is taken from Glass’s opera Akhnaten, premiered in 1983. Akhnaten was the religious reformer who ruled Egypt from 1375 to 1358 BC. The prelude’s pulsating sound creates a sense of tension for the start of the opera.

Performers: Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554568

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 The style of music written by Philip Glass is often called what?

a. Romantic
b. Funky-soul
c. Minimalist

 Philip Glass studied which instrument?

a. Tuba
b. Flute
c. Bassoon

 Philip Glass was inspired in New York by the music of another American ‘minimalist’ composer. Who was he?

a. Steve Reich
b. John Adams
c. Arvo Pärt

 Which of the following operas was written by Philip Glass?

a. Wozzeck
b. Porgy and Bess
c. Einstein on the Beach

 Philip Glass’s father ran what?

a. A shoe shop
b. A paper factory
c. A record shop

Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Philip Glass has described himself as a ‘Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist’! So his beliefs have come from several places.
  2. Glass shares a birthday – 31 January – with Schubert, his favourite composer.
  3. Philip Glass works with all sorts of musicians, from rock bands to orchestras.
  4. It took time for him to earn money from his music, so in the 1970s he also worked as a plumber and a taxi driver.
  5. Glass is a vegetarian.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works

Violin Concerto No. 1

The Violin Concerto has the solo violin whirling around and above the orchestra. The first and third movements are punchy, while in the middle is a tender movement where the violin seems almost to cry. Glass wrote the concerto in memory of his father, and said, ‘His favourite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos… I wanted to write one that my father would have liked.’

Performers: Adele Anthony, violin; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.554568


Glass wrote Company first of all as a string quartet, and then arranged it for a string orchestra. It takes its name from a short novel by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. This was dramatized – put on in a theatre with actors – and these pieces by Glass were played as part of the production. The music reflects the bleakness of the novel. The strings seem to grind out their notes, and the intervals (the distance between notes played together) are quite harsh.

Performers: Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.559056

Akhnaten (excerpts)

Glass’s opera Akhnaten was premiered in 1983. Akhnaten was the religious reformer who ruled Egypt from 1375 to 1358 BC. The prelude’s pulsating sound creates tension for the start of the opera. The dance from Act II, Scene 3 opens with strong brass chords before the more delicate and fluid string sounds take over. Can you hear a tambourine and a woodblock begin at 1:06? All the way through the piece, little patterns repeat over and over, before moving on and combining like a patchwork of sound. The dance represents the building of Akhnaten’s new city – a city full of light-filled spaces.

Performers: Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa

Taken from Naxos 8.559056

The Light

In 1887 American physicists Michelson and Morley demonstrated that the speed of light is always constant. The discovery mystified physicists until in 1905 Albert Einstein explained the observation with his Theory of Relativity. Glass was inspired by this to compose The Light. In it, he represents in music the beginnings of modern scientific research – an expressive introduction gives way to an energetic main section (beginning around 5:50), which holds the excitement of discovery. Glass cleverly creates a sense of anticipation all the way through.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559325

Symphony No. 4, ‘Heroes’

Glass has often collaborated with pop and rock musicians. Here he takes the album by David Bowie and Brian Eno, called Heroes, inspired by the then-divided city of Berlin, and uses it as the basis for a big orchestral work. It is his Symphony No. 4 – in six movements. Pulsating notes from the string instruments are often present, surrounded by the swell of colourful sounds in the orchestra, including tubular bells and blaring trumpets. Can you hear the castanets in movement 2?

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559325

Concert Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (arr. M. Lortz for two timpanists and wind ensemble)

Glass composed this work in 2000. It is a great addition to the limited repertoire for timpanists! Timpani are kettle-drums, and you can tune them to play different notes. There are two solo timpanists here, in a work that seems to have the big sweep and drama of film music, with fascinating sounds. Just listen to the phenomenal cadenzas in movement 3 – cadenzas are where a soloist shows off what they can do, and they certainly do that here!

Performers: Ji Hye Jung, timpani; Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani; University of Kansas Wind Ensemble; Paul Popiel

Taken from Naxos 8.573205

Symphony No. 2

This Second Symphony by Glass is epic in scope and full of complicated harmonies. It has a rousing finale. A serious symphony, it also shows that although Glass was breaking new ground with his music, and using aspects of different genres, his material is extremely well structured, and grounded in classical knowledge and skill.

Performers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.559202

Chamber and Instrumental Works

Metamorphosis V

Glass was inspired to write his five piano pieces called Metamorphoses by Franz Kafka’s famous novel. In the fifth Metamorphosis, a simple statement is followed by a rocking, almost romantic passage, the combination being repeated several times. The effect is hypnotic.

Performers: Hans Palsson, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554794

Dracula (excerpts)

Dracula is a soundtrack for the re-release of the 1931 Dracula film starring Bela Lugosi. He is the most famous of the many actors who have played Dracula. The music was originally written for the Kronos Quartet, a quartet famous for playing modern music. Here a selection of the 26 tracks is played.

Performers: Carducci String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.559766

String Quartet No. 1

Glass wrote this string quartet in 1966, when he was trying to find a way forward from the complexity of his early works. At the time, he was also working on transcribing (writing down in musical notation) some Indian music for Western instruments. Something of the mesmerizing quality of Indian music seems to be here in this quartet. The sound-world is quite strange, and it is not so typical of Glass although it is still fascinating to listen to. See what you think!

Performers: Carducci String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.559636