Philip Glass' symphony No.2 continues the symphonic journey the composer began about six years ago. His first full-scaled work in the genre, titled The Low Symphony (because some of its thematic material was derived from the Brian Eno and David Bowie album of that name), was premiered by Dennis Russell Davies and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1992. It surprised many listeners; critics heard intimations of Copland, or Ives, or Bernstein.
In fact, stand-alone orchestral writing represents a relatively recent phase in Glass' oeuvre. As the composer puts it, "This is really the beginning of my symphonic output." On the other hand, the Low Symphony was his fifth symphonic work, and many of it characteristics had been foreshadowed in the string of symphonic works that preceded it, beginning in the late 1980's: The Light ( a symphony in all but name, composed in 1987 for the Cleveland Orchestra); the Violin Concerto (also 1987, for the American Composers Orchestra); The Canyon (1988); and the Concerto Grosso (1992, also a virtual symphony, written for Dennis Russell Davies' Beethovenhalle Orchestra). "So the Symphony No.2," says Glass, "which is the sixth purely orchestral piece, should not be a big surprise to people who have been following my work regularly over the hears. Of course , people who haven't been listening since the period when my work (and that of some others) was identified as Minimalism - those people might be surprised."
Glass' Symphony No.2 is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes doubling English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass/contrabass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, a percussion section of four players (but without timpani), piano, harp, and a standard complement of strings.
The Symphony is written in three continuous movements, lasting about forty minutes. The first movement opens with a statement by English horn; this theme becomes the basis for the allegro before tapering off in to a quiet coda, which serves as a transition to the second movement. Instead of being a long, continuous piece, the second movement becomes a study in the juxtaposition and development of contrasting themes, yielding a succession of fast and slow tempos, energetic and lyrical writing. The third movement is an allegro at heart.
Structural experimentation and orchestral sonorities notwithstanding, the most striking aspect of Glass' Symphony No.2 may be the ways in which melody and harmony interlock in a polytonal fashion. "I've been interested in polytonal music for some time, starting with Akhnaten," says Glass. "We've talked an awful lot about atonality, about twelve-tone music, about tonality. But the great experiments of polytonality carried out in the 1930's and 40's, show that there's still a lot of work to be done in that area. Harmonic language and melodic language can coexist closely or at some calculated distance, and their relationship can be worked out in term of either coexisting harmonies or ambiguous harmonies. Honegger, Milhaud, and Villa-Lobos - to name a few prominent polytonalists - pushed two tonalities together at the same time. But I'm more interested in the ambiguous that can result from polytonality - how what you hear depends on how you focus your ear, how a listener's perception of tonality can vary in the fashion of an optical illusion. We're not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages."
"Yes," Glass continues, "we have here tonality. But which tonality is it? At the end of the twentieth century, we've come back to the question of tonal music. We've come back tot he same crisis that existed at the end of the nineteenth century, but now we hear if differently, from a different perspective, because our whole perception of what is consonant and what is dissonannt has been altered during the past hundred years. In my case, people hear my music and say, "Oh! It's tonal." They hear C major when it's actually two keys at once. But they hear consonance because their ears have accommodated so completely to a context of post-serial, post-dodecaphonic dissonance."
© James M Keller