There is much buzz around the performance of Philip Glass's Heroes Symphony (from the music of Bowie & Eno) at Glastonbury, the world largest music festival, on June 25th in a midnight performance on the Park Stage as a tribute to the late/great David Bowie. The performance will be performed by Army of Generals and members of the British Paraorchestra conducted by Charles Hazelwood.
In reviewing the performance history of Heroes Symphony it's understandable that there would be a such a spike in interest in the piece after Bowie's death. Composed in 1996, Heroes Symphony received its New York premiere only in 2011 when the Wordless Music Orchestra performed it under Brad Lubman. Only weeks after Bowie's passing, conductor Evan Ziporyn conducted both Heroes and Low Symphonies in a memorial concert at MIT in Cambridge which was captured live by Q2. It was a cathartic experience: both the audience and musicians had all been clearly touched by the life and music of David Bowie and it was a way that people who, for lack of a better term, work in the world of notated music, could pay homage to this great 20th Century genius.
From Express: "
Glass, the composer, was greatly admired by Bowie and saw him as a big influence on his work.
Glass said: “When Charles told me of his plan to take my ‘Heroes Symphony’ to Glastonbury, I was delighted.
“It's very exciting to think of it playing - at the midnight hour - out across the parkland, a true celebration of Bowie.
“I am so very pleased members of the British Paraorchestra and Chris Levine's epic light performance will be part of it.
“What a spectacular collaboration. This is sound and vision Bowie-style.”
So after many years of relative obscurity Heroes Symphony seems to taking root in the concert hall with already 6 performances in 2016 as a way that the classical music world can remember Bowie's music and enjoy the variety and invention of what Glass internalized and constructed from it. Below are my notes on the piece from the recent Glass Symphony Box collection:
Symphony No. 4
from the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno
Philip Glass commented on the creation of his Fourth Symphony in 1996 in preparation for the recording of the work, which was to be used for Twyla Tharp’s ballet “Heroes”:
“Heroes, like the Low Symphony of several years ago, is based on the work of Bowie and Eno. In a series of innovative recordings made in the late 70’s, David and Brian combined influences from world music, experimental avant-garde, and rock and roll and thereby redefined the future of popular music.
Almost twenty years later, I have gone back to their original material, using it as a point of departure and inspiration, much as composers of the past have based their work on their contemporaries. Using themes from Heroes I have made a new composition which hopefully will reintroduce this music to today’s listeners.
I mentioned the new work I was doing to Twyla Tharp, the American choreographer with whom I had worked on In the Upper Room, a dance work for her company. She suggested I think of Heroes as a ballet score for her new dance company. We suggested this to David, who immediately shared Twyla’s enthusiasm for the Idea. Accordingly, I set Heroes as a six- movement work, each movement based on a theme from Heroes, with an overall dramatic structure that would be suitable for dance. The result is a symphonic ballet - a transformation of the original themes combined with new material of my own and presented in a new dramatic form.
The continuing influence of these works has secured their stature as part of the new “classics” of our time. Just as composers of the past have turned to music of their time to fashion new works, the work of Bowie and Eno became an inspiration and point of departure of symphonies of my own.”
By the time Glass had written his Fourth Symphony, the symphonies of Philip Glass contained some of the composer’s best music. It was music that stood apart from all his other work. These pieces had their own musical agenda. By this time, when one considers the complete catalogue of the composer, it’s not easy to embrace the composer’s assertion that he is simply a “theater composer.” With the tentative step toward the form of the symphony with his first “Bowie-Eno” inspired orchestral work in 1992, Glass seemed fully confident with the huge undertaking when writing his essay in polytonality, Symphony No. 2, in 1994.
By that point that Glass had been making up for lost time. Low Symphony was a tentative step into the vast ocean of symphonic literature. Symphony No. 2 was a great full dive into
that ocean. Rather than succumbing to the weight of historical baggage, by the time of Glass’s Third Symphony in 1995, Glass had wholeheartedly embraced the idea of writing symphonies. As we have discussed, Glass’s Third Symphony was very much a nod to tradition: not only with the nod to Richard Strauss and Bartok, but also as a celebration of the strong American practice of writing string symphonies. After not writing a symphony from ages zero to fifty-five, Glass composed four major symphonies in 1992, ’94, ’95, and ’96.
Such “clusters” of activity within certain genres can be seen in Glass’s work. Usually within such clusters there is a wide variety. At the end of what Glass considers his Minimalist period in 1976 with Einstein on the Beach, Glass received a commission from the Netherlands Opera to “write a real opera.” Glass describes the premiere of that new opera, Satyagraha, as a complete let-down to the audience as there was a great expectation that he would create a fitting sequel, something very similar to Einstein on the Beach. Glass had no interest in repeating himself. Basic artistic need for variety exists in Glass’s symphonic output as well.
Unlike Glass’ first three symphonies, Symphony No. 4 “Heroes” or Heroes Symphony of 1996 was not premiered traditionally as a symphony. If we step back a couple decades into his career, we see that Glass the composer is attracted to the concept of the trilogy. The big statement of his early career was his ‘Portrait Trilogy’ (the operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.) When opportunities started to open up for the composer in the early 1990’s, Glass embarked on two new triptychs: that of a series of operas based on the work of Jean Cocteau and a set of symphonies based on the music from the David Bowie albums made in collaboration with Brian Eno. These three symphonic works take inspiration from the three albums Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979). Glass embraced the source material very much in the tradition of classical composers using folk music sources of famous themes by past composers. In this case, for Glass it provided an attractive opportunity: to take what he considered wonderful melodies – and to combine them with his own music in realizing a bigger whole. In Low Symphony, this was manifest in three large-scale movements. In composing Heroes Symphony, Glass had already decided that this piece would also be his “Dance Symphony” set to choreography by Twyla Tharp, a gifted collaborator with whom he had already had a long relationship dating back to their hit ballet in In the Upper Room some ten years earlier.
The symphony is scored for 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, percussion, harp, piano, celesta strings. Unlike Low Symphony in which Glass committed to long-form writing, his Fourth Symphony is in six shorter movements: 1. Heroes, 2. Abdulmajid, 3. Sense of Doubt, 4. Sons of the Silent Age, 5. Neuköln and 6. V2 Schneider. The piece gives symphonic dimension to the Bowie/Eno works but in a much personalized way than in Low Symphony and often with much more subtle use of the source material. From Low, Glass took elaborate instrumental phrases and expanded, re-harmonized, and elaborated them in an organic symphonic process.
In Heroes Symphony, Glass again re-harmonizes the Bowie/Eno pieces, but this time he uses the material differently and in a much more condensed way. Rather than wholesale elements being appropriated, Glass seems to take smaller edits of original melodic phrases or sometimes just gestures as a point of departure. In Heroes Symphony, Glass’s predilection tends to deal more with representing the material in his own language, including embedding more of his own rhythmic ideas as one can hear in the pulsing opening movement Heroes. In Sense of Doubt, Glass uses the main descending Bowie figure, but in the remaining seven minutes of the movement it’s all Glass original material. In Sons of a Silent Age Glass takes the glorious main melody from the rock song and builds his own music around it showcasing it in a whole new light. In V2 Schneider, the symphony’s rousing finale, Glass extracts the sense of harmonic cadence (not literal extraction, again re- harmonizing it). In other words, it’s generally easier to identify the original Bowie/Eno material in Low Symphony than it is in Heroes Symphony, a sentiment that Bowie himself agreed with. In all, Heroes seems to be more of an internalization by the composer of the source material than in the First Symphony.
The Twyla Tharp Company toured the ballet Heroes in 1996 performing it 28 times that season and again 58 times in 1997. The where-and-when of the premiere of the piece as a concert work is presently unknown. The Heroes Symphony was recorded for Point Music in 1996. At that time, right before the recording at the Masonic Temple in Mid-Town Manhattan the American Composers Orchestra, Davies, Bowie, Glass and others all came together to hear a rehearsal before the team, as with Low Symphony, went into the studio for the sectional recording process. But the piece did not receive a premiere at that time.
The Fourth Symphony has had an interesting life since. As a symphonic work the piece has also been recorded by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony has been performed as Symphony No. 4 “Heroes” many times in Germany and Austria (usually championed by conductor Dennis Russell Davies), Norway, Scotland, Russia, Holland, Italy, and the United States. Around the time of a performance of the work by the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City in May 2011, a previous public New York performance could not be found. Essentially the New York public had to wait more than 15 years to hear Glass’s Fourth Symphony performed live in concert. The whole process from the conception of the piece as another studio album, a recording used then for the dance performances, to overlooking a proper New York premiere suggests that the whole project was ad hoc. The conductor of the New York performances in 2011, Brad Lubman, was shocked to find out that the conductor’s score itself was just a photocopy of the Glass manuscript – the piece had never been copied or engraved. Recently, both the Low Symphony and Heroes Symphony were recently performed in January 2016 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the baton of Evan Ziporyn, just weeks after the passing of David Bowie as a memorial to that great artist.
The new recording featured in this set is by the Basel Sinfonieorchester under the direction of its Music Director Dennis Russell Davies. As with the new recording of Low Symphony, this is a stunning achievement. In 2009, Davies conducted Heroes Symphony in the heart of the city of Linz Austria an audience of 6,000 listeners. Since 2009, upon starting his Music
Directorship with the magnificent Basel Sinfonieorchester, Davies thought back to these two Glass symphonies from the 1990’s (without cuts that were made for the recording – the first movement is a full four minutes longer than the first recording) with an intention to present these symphonies as they were meant to be heard – unencumbered and able to breathe freely. The result that Davies draws from the orchestra is remarkable.