Philip Glass: Biography & Music

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Philip Glass is an American classical music composer, perhaps one of the most important modern composers. This lesson will examine his music, which is often described as minimalist, though his music is more advanced than his minimalist contemporaries.

Philip Glass - A Modern Composer

Quick, name a modern classical composer. Credit if you thought of John Williams, though he is not typically known for his classical music. Amongst the pantheon of classical composers, Philip Glass is amongst the most influential modern composers and shares the same upper echelon of American composers. His music is influential and widely performed, both in the concert hall and film.

Philip Glass
Philip Glass by AxelBoldt

Philip Glass Biography

Glass was born into a Jewish family in Baltimore, Maryland on January 31, 1937. He began his musical study on the flute at the Peabody Institute. He eventually studied at Juilliard and in Aspen under Darius Milhaud. He won the BMI Student Composer Award in 1959. Most importantly in his development, Glass studied under Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris from 1964-1966. He has been married four times and has four children, and to make money in his early career, he owned a moving company, was a plumber, and worked as a taxi driver. He's still alive (I know, a living composer!) and lives in New York and Nova Scotia.

Philip Glass - Music For the Concert Hall

Initially, Glass' music was best described as minimalist. While it's true his music was harmonically and melodically simple, minimalism implies a simplicity that tends to have a negative connotation. Glass considers himself a classicist, traditionally trained. His music is repetitive and additive, musical ideas are repeated (almost looped), while ideas are slowly added. This isn't much unlike Beethoven, who used motivic development extensively in his music; see the 5th Symphony, for example.

Glass' classical concert music is best divided into three periods: early (minimalism), Another Look at Harmony and the Portrait Trilogy era, and the opera/symphonic. Most of his early music is for solo instruments and small ensembles, like Strung Out for amplified solo violin. His second period included music for plays, operas, music for film, cues for TV, music for organ, choir, string quartets, and dance pieces. His music tended to accompany either dance ensembles or was musical accompaniment/representation of artistic works. His album Glassworks was released during this period, which took the classical music out of the concert hall and into the hands of the masses. His final period (or really, his current period), has focused largely on the grander sized compositions: operas, symphonies, and concertos.

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