Glass Symphony no. 3

performed by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (commissioner of the work) under Dennis Russel Davies

second, third and fourth movements

(cover photo by John Price)

Here we are today with Glass’s first symphonic work to appear on the blog, the first I came in contact with something like a decade and a half ago on a snowy day through the countryside in my mother’s car. (For what it’s worth, the recording was the one from Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony, also a fine recording, perhaps better audio quality than the above, but maybe not as intense. It seems no American orchestra has recorded the piece. Sigh.)

But that’s not the only reason we’re discussing his third instead of his first or second. Of the (currently 11) symphonies that Glass has written, this one is, of the first half of his symphonic output, certainly the most traditional, I’d say.

We’ve discussed Glass works from as early as the ’70s, and he was composing in the ’60s, but not much of that survives. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that he began composing symphonies, which was not early at all in his career, since he was already in his mid 50s by that time.

Last year, in preparation for this series, I acquired Glass’s recently released memoir, Words without Music, and I cannot recommend it enough. If you have any interest in Glass as a composer, a desire to understand his works, or even, actually, a lack of understanding of his specific aesthetic and the influences that precipitated his particular style, then this book is a must-read. Not only is it just interesting, full of fascinating stories of a man who led an incredibly interesting, inspiring life, it gives such insight into his influences, artistic pursuits, development and how he came to be one of the greatest, and I’d argue still somewhat under-appreciated living American composers. Just wonderful.

If I had to say anything about what I learned from Glass’s background, though, it would be the enormously high regard he had for Mlle. Boulanger and her training. She was obviously known for being strict and thorough and demanding, but his description of her pedagogy and the respect that he clearly has for her were very moving. In speaking of her teaching of counterpoint, he defended what may sound like an antiquated task by saying that it continues to be used down to the present day, giving his third symphony as an example, as below:

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Glass’s third symphony is in four movements, with a total playing time of about 24 minutes. There are no titles or markings for the movements, but it falls into a pretty standard four-movement structure. It was, as Glass’s official website says:

Written for the 19 string players of the Stuttgart Orchestra, using them all as individual (or solo) players, the work in four mouvements has still the structure of a true symphony.

The sound of the work, overall, is quite similar aesthetically to what people may expect to hear from Glass in a film, like the music from The Hours, but now in a symphonic application.

The first movement, and really the entire work, has the same crystal clear quality that the composer’s string quartets have. The symphony begins with a pulsing note, C, as if the heartbeat of the whole piece, but as the movement continues, greater complexity unfolds. There’s a sense that the work opens up, in the way that a flower blooms, to reveal what was there all along. There is use of almost ostinato-like figures, but it seems there’s no sonata-form structure here, unless it lies in rhythmic figures. Ultimately, the movement progresses to a pizzicato passage and ends with a resigned sigh.

Instantly, in stark contrast with the more subdued pulse of the first movement is the driving force of the second movement. It’s because of this movement that I distinctly recall driving in the car that was not mine, on the highway, on a freezing cold day, through snow flurries, the modern day equivalent of a ride through the country (I was indeed in the middle of nowhere) on a horse-drawn carriage. There’s an invigorating, even perhaps slightly intimidating, drive to this scherzo-like movement, and it only increases once the lowest voice of the ensemble enters, underpinning what they’ve already established. It’s spectacular writing for strings, and very effective, still a source of frisson for me to this day.

It has the same sense of unfolding and building that the first did, but on a more complex level. There’s a clear sense of metrical shift, undulating time signatures and rhythm, increasing in intensity with no end in sight, an invigorating, exhilarating climb. There are changes in texture, as voices appear or disappear. There are some pizzicato passages, but overall there’s an unending, relentless sense of forward motion all deriving from the same source. The climax comes where the entire ensemble finally falls into lock step, playing the rich, driving lines in unison. Towards the end, we have a splash of exotic, foreign-sounding melody from violas that adds an unexpected color to close out this movement, which also fades out with pizzicato textures.

The third movement is a chaconne. Wikipedia says that it “forms the core of the piece,” and it is indeed the longest movement of the work, taking up about ten minutes of the piece’s 24. We end up here with probably one of the most traditional approaches in this movement, ground bass and all, as the music builds with each repeat. The music sounds much like what we’d hear from a Glass film score, with a repeated eighth note (?) figure layered over the lower voices, until a solo violin enters with a long, high melodic line over the established bass.

It’s in this movement that each of the violins gets their solo moment, as “The melody passes to a different member of the violin section with each repeat.” The intensity of the previous movement is replaced by a long, slow build, layer after layer, evoking a poignant, intimate and still full sound from the chamber orchestra. The music continues to gain layers, in a kind of snowball effect, until by the end it is incredibly ornate, but holds together in a grand thing of beauty before suddenly dying away.

The finale is another tour de force. Beginning with almost stabbing chords in an irregular meter with a heavy-footed rhythm, they give increasing weight to the metrical interest of the movement. As the movement progresses, though, they’re overshadowed by chromatic runs that call our minds back to the second movement, and that content is recapitulated here, at least some of it.

While I said that the work is perhaps one of his most traditional in form, it’s still unmistakably Glass. Be it the clarity and straightforwardness of the string writing that inevitably leads to greater complexity, or the way a movement suddenly comes to a halt as if having been unplugged, the music is quintessentially the composer’s voice. There’s color and variety and a sense of intimacy to the work while still being a robust four-movement symphony.

I’ll be honest in saying that after listening to some of his more experimental works in nontraditional forms (Einstein on the Beach or Music with Changing Parts), in listening to the symphonies, I don’t always feel the form suits his music, that the piece makes a convincing argument for being in a symphonic form, if that makes sense, but here in the third, I find the form compelling. So that’s that.

We (wonderfully) have ten more symphonies from Glass’s pen to discuss, which we’ll get to eventually, but we have a few more works left to wrap up our American series, so do stay tuned for those, and thank you for reading.

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