glass notes
Pick of the Week: Symphony No.5

A long piece for a long weekend. Many people have elaborate plans for this weekend. I do not.  New York will be blissfully empty this weekend so why brave the highways? 


I have strange feelings toward Philip Glass' Fifth Symphony "Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya" and I don't think I'm alone.  I really like it.  I was in college when it came out, and I remember going to the computer lab and buying it on Amazon: Two discs!  What elaborate packaging!  Then when I actually listened to it (it probably took years before I got around to sitting down and listening to it beginning to end) it didn't possess that immediate payoff, that either drama or tightness of form which so thrilled me with so many other of Glass' work.

Symphony No.5 is a huge work: 100 minutes. 12 movements. The whole thing is a journey through many of the world's large "wisdom traditions."  Right away, religion doesn't carry much weight or meaning for me, and consequently maybe that's where the mystery and drama disappeared. So 10 years later I've gotten over myself.  The fact that there's a lot of good music in this piece, and that there is a lot of sheer effort evident if not compositional inspiration, has been enough for me to come back to it time after time trying my best to figure it out. 

Another way of saying this is that there's a lot of good music in this piece, a whole lot of it.  I've heard a couple live recordings and it's a concert piece on the scale of an opera, and that feeling of cohesive effort of the ensemble really does come through in live performance.  This is not a programmatic symphony. Rather it's closer to Mahler's work in this way. Closer to Das Lied von der Erde or perhaps that composer's Eighth Symphony. A synthesis of all the possible beautiful elements of life.

Indeed, this symphony appeals to a more noble sense of the things that tie people together including the commonalities of these very different religions. There's not a hint of the things that divide them and us.  One hears a Christian text, then an Islamic one, then a Buddhist one, in the same movement.  The journey is from before creation, through the creation of mankind, human experience into the afterlife. 

It's very easy to target this work as schmaltzy and confused millennial fluff.     And perhaps honestly there's an element of that in there. Maybe it's cynical but even at the turn of the millennium, no one was holding hands singing for the world to move bravely into peace through understanding in the new age. This is dramatically different to the time we find ourselves in now, only 10 years later where it seems the human enterprise has lost its momentum in so many ways. So there we have it.  Maybe the Fifth Symphony is representative of a time, now gone, the last gasp of true optimism. 

Whatever it's flaws, this symphony is a major work, by a major composer, on major themes. And it deserves more performances to find out what it's really about. Perhaps it was Glass' wish that by doing so, we'd be so busy producing, performing, and listening to this huge work, that in the process we'd all be drawn together to do it.  

Movement VII -Suffering, from Symphony No.5

Have a good Labor Day everyone…

5 thoughts on “Pick of the Week: Symphony No.5”

  1. I would go farther than you Richard, and say this is one of the very great Glass pieces. The melody for “There I have seen joy filled to the brim” in part 11 gets me every time.
    But I have a question for you and others with musical knowledge, of which I have none. I wonder if musically as well as thematically the whole symphony is not a theme and variations approach. Musically I have had the feeling that each of the first 11 movements is a variation on a theme that does not occur full blown until the 12 th movement, as in the last movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. This would also work thematically in the piece if it were true.
    Any thoughts?

  2. In my opinion, it is one of the best Glass works. The penetrating melodies reminds me of Handel’s operatic and oratorio arias. However, even though I have no musical knowledge, I’ve another feeling of what a symphony is.

  3. Maybe I need to revisit this album. I saw it performed years ago, and didn’t really get into it. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of Glass’ symphony’s.

  4. I bought the CD set in September 2001, about a week before the world changed, and to this day I can’t listen to the seventh movement without seeing the images of that day in my mind’s eye. I live in New Zealand and I remember waking up and getting ready to go to work that morning, turning on the TV and seeing what I first took to be the aftermath of a volcanic eruption onscreen, before my ears caught up to my eyes and I heard reports of a “bomb” attack in NY. As I walked to catch the bus to work my head was spinning and, as was my habit, I had the 2nd disc of the symphony playing in my walkman so I was hearing this heartbreaking music while passing people in the street, scanning their faces for recognition; had they heard, did they know?
    Of the symphony itself; I found it quite fragmented and episodic at first but after familiarising myself with the texts I realised that the patchwork styles helps maintain the integrity of the excerpts used which otherwise might have lost their individual identities, (you can almost “hear” the shift from one faith to another), so the various faiths are compared rather than synthesised.
    It may seem a little perverse, but I really do like the tenth movement, ‘Judgement and Apocalypse’; in particular the gleefully gory excerpt from ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’ with the frightening puctuations of the xylophone as graphic descriptions of dismemberment are lustily sung!

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