the CIVIL warS - Rome Section
Dance Nos. 1-5
Einstein on the Beach
Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent
"Akhnaten" (1983) is the last part of Philip Glass' "Portrait-Trilogy". After
Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi, now an exponent of religion is the
protagonist of the opera, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Akhnaten
revolutionized the leading religion in ancient Egypt by introducing the
monotheism, that means, for him "Aton" was the only god. But after all
he failed because of the striving for power and force of the traditional
priests, and he was overthrown.|
In the three operas of the trilogy there is a slow changing noticeable. In "Einstein on the Beach" the person of Einstein has a more metaphoric meaning; in "Satyagraha" appears the real person Gandhi but the scenes are not ordered chronologically and have changed metaphorically. In "Akhnaten" there stays a certain metaphoric contain, but the scenes are taken chronological from the live of the main character. Similar for all three operas is the use of the language. In "Akhnaten" too, it stays unintelligible most of the time, but also there appears for the first time (spoken) text in a common language. Only the central aria of Akhnaten, his prayer to Aton, has to be sung in the language of the audience.
The score of the opera is a bit strange, because it is a mostly classical orchestra but without the violins.
One reason for this kind of
orchestration was the fact that the premiere took place in the
state-theatre Stuttgart (Germany), where the main house (the "Großes
Haus") was closed this year because of some renovation, and in the
little house there was not enough place for a full orchestra.|
But the lack of the violins fits very good to Glass' intention with this work: the music has a warmer, deeper and darker sound, and the contrast to the winds is more intensively. Also the percussion-instruments get more place, especially in scene 2 of the first act, the funeral of Akhnaten's father. There is a kind of music, which never appears in "Einstein on the Beach" nor in "Satyagraha". In fact, this "Funeral" was the first piece of "Akhnaten" that was played in public, because there is a special version for the Philip Glass Ensemble. This piece was recorded for the CD "Dancepieces", which might be one of the best Ensemble-CDs.
In most parts of the opera there dominates a restful and nearly calm sound; most of it stands in a-minor. The strength and power of Akhnaten himself is represented with the trumpet, which is used as "his" instrument. But there is another really emotional scene with the full orchestra: Akhnaten's fall.
"Akhnaten" is a good work for a start into the sound of Glass' music, as some of the other works I comment. If someone would like to start with something more peaceful and meditative, then "Akhnaten" is a good choice.
The CD was long announced, but now it's finally there: Nonesuch released "the CIVIL warS - a tree is best measured when it is down (Rome Section)". This great and big project by Robert Wilson is a milestone in the theatre of the 80s of this century. Philip Glass composed music for two parts of the cycle: Cologne Section (only for some scenes) and the whole score for Rome Section. The last one is now released after such a long time; before today there have been only some scenes on video and some small parts from unauthorized recordings.
We meet Philip Glass here in the most intensive time of his "arpeggio-period". Comparable especially to "Satyagraha", the middle part of his "Portrait-Trilogy", the cast is almost classical: symphony orchestra, choir, soloists. But there are two speakers added, which is really uncommon for a work, which can be seen as an opera (in the widest sense of the term). These speakers are an essential part of the sound-experience, because they don't speak between the music-parts, as it might be in some "normal" operas, but together with the music. They are very casts with two very famous people: the male part is spoken by Robert Wilson himself, and the female part is spoken by Laurie Anderson, and both impress with a very intensive way of speaking.
But back to the music. Because of the choice of a classical symphony orchestra (impressing conducted by Dennis Russell Davies) the sound could have been conventional, if Glass wouldn't overrule all conventional associations leading the orchestra with a short but powerful
crescendo into very mighty and soughing arpeggios through different scales.
Fitting to the fifth act of a classical tragedy (the Rome Section is the fifth
and last part of the whole cycle) the work starts with strong emotions and dramatics.
The whole piece is divided into four parts, of which the first one - after the crescendo - exposes the main theme, which appears several times during the whole work, which is common for Glass' music. In the first part there is a changing of sections with strong emotions and with very soft and melodic passages, which are sung one time by the soprano and the other time by the baritone.
Especially the parts 3 and 4 have to be regarded carefully because of the appearance of the speakers. In both parts, mainly in the third one, the music stays a bit in the background with some chords and arpeggios. In that way the music becomes more important for the whole impression, although it is very difficult here to listen exactly to some details. The dynamic is caused by the speaker, first of all because of the very intensive speech of Robert Wilson. In the work's final voice (Laurie Anderson) and music are disappearing slowly, combined with some animal-voices.
As a whole, the music is very melodic and lyrical, although or because there are many arpeggios, crescendi and decrescendi. There is nearly nothing to hear of the later more polytonal Glass. But nevertheless I don't recommend this wonderful recording of "the CIVIL warS" as an entrance to the music of Philip Glass.
The five-parted piece (partly based on older works, among other things from
cycle "Forth Series") in some sense marks a transition from the more
minimalistic phase to a period, in which the music got a more melodic and
lyrical character. After the first climax with "Music in Twelve Parts",
something like an "Art of the Fugue" of the minimal music (Philip Glass always
disapproved the term minimal music, but it is nevertheless accepted by many of
his listeners), there followed with "Einstein on the Beach" one of the
outstanding pieces in Glass' works. And on the way from "Einstein" to
"Satyagraha" "Dance" was composed.|
Three parts of it are written for the Philip Glass Ensemble, two for organ solo. The ensemble-pieces anticipate many of the main characteristics of "Koyaanisqatsi" and "Glassworks", but contain still some marks of "Music in Twelve Parts": The many arpeggios and good-sounding triads look ahead, the number of the repetitions of some passages and the duration of the whole parts show their relationship to earlier works. High speed and volume are often similar to parts of "Einstein" (e.g. act 2, scene 1), but the partial sharp harmony in "Einstein" disappears in favor of more consonant sounds.
The parts 2 and 4 for organ solo form a bit an integrated whole for
themselves. Especially in "Dance 4" the principle of addition an subtraction
take effect. The work is made of two alternating parts, of which the one, with
whom the piece starts, consists only of two harmonies. During the piece there
is no change of the number of harmonies but of the number of repetitions or,
above all, a change of the rhythmical division by variation of the numbers of
beats per bar from 2 to 5, combined with triols and other variations. Between
these recurring harmonies there is always another part, consisting of up to
six harmonies, which also appear in different rhythmical divisions.
In the whole piece the complexity is growing continuously, so that at the
beginning stand easy rhythms and the longer, more complicated ones at the
end.. But also in the middle, some notes can be added or deleted.|
"Dance Nos. 1-5" includes the whole spectrum of Glass' composing at the end of the seventies, showing also to the coming eighties.
There has been very, very much written about "Einstein on the Beach" since its
world-premiere (1976 in Avignon, France). It is surely not one of the most
radical works of Philip Glass, but surely one of his best-known, and it is the
work, that made him and Robert Wilson, who was responsible for the whole non-
musical part of this "opera", famous in the whole world of arts. But this
introduction addresses itself especially to those people, who had no or only a
few contacts with the music by Philip Glass.|
Of course, "Einstein on the Beach" is no opera in the common sense. It is true that there are singers and dancers, performing on the stage, and that there is also an "orchestra" (the Philip Glass Ensemble). But the work has no narrative action, it consists only of "living pictures", which however have no relation to the real life of Albert Einstein. But nothing more shall be said here about what happens on the stage; finally it is a question of listening to one of the two recordings (CBS/Sony and Nonesuch).
Philip Glass is a master in creating very much from very few musical material. That is shown especially in "Einstein on the Beach". The principle of addition
and subtraction of notes of musical "patterns" (a keyword for every so-called
"minimal music") is used here very frequently. Basically the whole opera,
which after all has a live-duration of about five hours, consists of only a
few themes or patterns, which appear again and again. There are only little
changes of these patterns, e.g. the length, the instrumentation or the
At the beginning, at the end and between every of the four acts, there is a so-called "knee-play", which functions as a connection. Right at the beginning it becomes clear that it is not an opera in the normal sense: There is a slow bass-line with only three notes, played by the electronic organ, and the singing starts with repetitions of numbers "one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four...". The instrumentation of each scene is changing through the whole spectrum: From solo-violin (Einstein himself used to play violin sometimes), choir a-capella, solo-singing with organ, up to the whole Philip Glass Ensemble with Choir. Together with this, sometimes there are spoken words, which sense does not open up before the listener during the first time (and perhaps they stay obscure).
"Einstein on the Beach" will be a very special hearing-event for everyone, who gets involved in it, also without the impression of the stage-performance.
"Satyagraha" is the second part of Philip Glass' so-called
"portrait"-trilogy, which contains of "Einstein on the Beach",
"Satyagraha" and "Akhnaten".
In "Einstein on the Beach" it was a scientist, who was the middle of the
artistic work, but now in "Satyagraha" it is Mohandas K. Gandhi, a man,
who can be called in a wider sense a politician. In any case, the opera
emphasizes especially this aspect of Gandhi's work, particularly because
the scenes show events (in a non-chronological way), which happened
during Gandhi's time in South-Africa.|
In the music we see a very different Philip Glass. The sometimes aggressive sound of "Einstein on the Beach" has given way to a much more soft, melodical, yes, occasional spiritual sound. In that case, the choice of the ensemble is very important: Instead of the Philip Glass Ensemble we hear now a classical symphony-orchestra, and the arias are sung by classical trained singers, assisted by an opera-chorus.
Most of the music is very harmonical with a lot of melody-like parts. Of
course, the method of repetition is still used, but now Glass works more often
with tonal chords. Very much he uses the means of addition and subtraction of
notes by repeating a small unit within a bigger one and enlarging the number of
notes, and later after that he reduces the number. A bit changing can be seen
in Glass' work, which beginning can be remarked in "Dance". Now the clear and
soft sound dominates; hurry or rush are used very rarely.|
The language is still strange. In "Einstein on the Beach" it was the content of the texts and their reference to the performance which seems to be sometimes unintelligible. Now in "Satyagraha" it is the language itself: Glass and his librettist, Constance DeJong, chose parts of the "Bhagavad-Gita" in its original language, the classical Sanskrit. But anyway, also the language is part of the more gentle and spiritual impression, which seems to be very adequate to the thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi.
The filmmusic to "Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent" is part of the most
beautiful works, which Philip Glass has written, but also one of his lesser
I recommend the CD thoroughly for first-listeners as an entry into the
As performer this time we don't hear the Philip Glass Ensemble but the English Chamber Orchestra with a very soft and warm sound, nearly throughout the whole recording. Even if the music sometimes becomes more dark, adjusted to the movie, a warm harmony dominates. This harmony takes the listener along into sound-worlds of sometimes a bit sad melancholy, but there is still something bright and full of hope. Philip Glass achieves this effect above all with the use of the strings, but especially with an often repeated special motive, played by the solo-cello and
the english-horn. The latter builds the basic mood of the music with a half-
lamenting and half-cheerful melody and its sometimes melancholy sound, once
reminding of a misty morning, once of a rainy evening.
With passionately growing arpeggios of the strings, the music creates a
powerful, mighty sound-rush, suddenly removed by more chambermusical parts.|
Sharp harmony, e.g. as in "Einstein on the Beach", is not used; the music is more like "Akhnaten", Glass' opera about the egypt pharaoh.
"Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent" surely is one of the most romantic works of Philip Glass.
All these reviews are
© Mathias Sträßer, 1998- 1999
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