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About this Piece

Composed: 2011
Length: c. 50 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (anvil, bass drum, castanets, chimes, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, shaker, snare drum, tambourine, tam-tam, temple blocks, tenor drum, tom-toms, triangle, wood block, and xylophone), piano, celesta, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere)

Philip Glass came to symphonies relatively late in his career, and when he wrote his first in 1992, it was something of an unexpected departure for a composer best known for theater works and pieces for his own ensemble. Twenty years later, Glass is an acknowledged master of the medium, with his Ninth Symphony just premiered and his tenth already completed.

Co-commissioned by the Bruckner Orchester Linz, Carnegie Hall, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Ninth had its world premiere on New Year’s Day in Linz, with Dennis Russell Davies conducting. Its U.S. premiere came on January 31, Glass’ 75th birthday, with Davies conducting the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. A live recording of the Linz performance was released on iTunes the same day and quickly shot up the download charts.

“It’s an ambitious piece, more than 50 minutes long,” Glass said in an interview. “I’m pleased it came out well, because everybody’s kind of expecting it. So this is a time when you want to have a good piece ready to go, and it seems in good shape.”

It is a large piece in several dimensions. Each of the three expansive movements is roughly A-B-A in shape, although the return at the end is usually much modified. Considering how the solo trumpet in the opening of the third movement picks up almost exactly the woodwind theme from the beginning of the work, the overall shape is also something of an arch, giving it a form like nested palindromes. The orchestra is also large, reinforced particularly in the winds, and used to rich effect.

“Big and unrelenting” is how Glass has described it, but for all the large orchestra and the complex rhythmic buildup, Glass never asks for more than forte (f) in the climaxes, though the soft end goes down to pianississimo (ppp). Characteristically, new sections or blocks are usually marked by a new dynamic, terraced rather than preceded by long crescendos.

Glass describes the symphonic genre and form as a container, and it is one that he has often filled with content inspired by other art works, such as the two symphonies based on David Bowie/Brian Eno albums, or delivered in part with singers and texts. According to the composer, however, the new Symphony is focused on “the language of music itself,” as reported on Richard Guérin’s Glass Notes blog.

The first movement begins in low, soft mystery, with an oscillating major third that becomes a minor third on every fourth beat. The basses and bassoons come in below this, harmonically contextualizing the interval(s). Much of Glass’ music, in this symphony and elsewhere, rests on pedal points, but his bass lines, such as here, can be motivic forces as well. Of all the famous ninth symphonies, it was Mahler’s that Glass had in mind in this opening.

Unison woodwinds come in over a different rhythmic block with an important tune that will be much developed and then reprised in a different context at the beginning of the third movement. Then the tempo nearly doubles, introducing a new rhythmic pattern, but still mezzo forte. Glass gradually adds instruments, increasing the range, volume, and rhythmic layers. After this powerful accumulation, the music falls back close to the original tempo, keeping some of the more evolved rhythmic patterns but at a very soft level

This runs directly into the second movement, still soft and slow, with a floating gymnopédie-like atmosphere. Glass here reworks a theme used in his score to the film Rebirth, a recent 9/11 documentary from director Jim Whitaker. Like the opening of the first movement there are melodically and harmonically active basses, then unison woodwinds with an important melody, this time with chiming glockenspiel. This movement also builds to a more rhythmic, much faster central section, which ends abruptly in a grand pause. The ensuing soft, slower section, is more rhythmically complex than the beginning of the movement, but eventually winds down into something very like that opening.

The third movement continues this unusual formal pattern, the shifting formal repetitions expressing on a larger scale something like the morphing cellular patterning of Glass’ music. Again it starts soft and low, almost Beethovenian in its ominously insinuating, implacable momentum. As noted above, the trumpet brings back intact the big tune from the opening of the first movement. This movement does not have the big uptick in tempo, but the swirling figuration does grow into a complex contrapuntal web in the highly energized center section. It ends slightly slower, softer, and with oscillating major/minor thirds in the same key area as the beginning of the symphony.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.