PHILIP GLASS: Symphony No. 4 “Heroes” – an owner, Patrick Latimer offers his opinions

  • Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 4 “Heroes”
  • Performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Sinfonieorchester Basel
  • On Orange Mountain Music

Angst and orchestration in a divided Berlin

Trepidation ensues

I saw this compact disc listed amongst recent releases and I must confess that although I know of Philip Glass and in my youth I was a great follower of David Bowie and Brian Eno, I was unaware of this cross fertilisation (for want of a better word) up till now which is a bit of an oversight as it was composed nearly 20 years ago.

I nearly used the term collaboration for this symphony but I am not sure that would be strictly accurate as I do not think Messrs. Glass Bowie and Eno actually sat in a room and reworked the original Heroes album together.

Although I greatly admire the different music of all three parties I still approached this disc with a degree of trepidation. This is nothing to do with the named composers but rather with the whole generally unhappy history of encounters betwixt rock and classical music.

This is not the time or place to anatomise the track record of rock meets classical but Deep Purple performing with the London Philharmonic and Emmerson Lake and Palmer’s interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition spring to mind if justification is required for my hesitancy in embracing the cross genre approach.

This could work

That said classical music has a long tradition of composers successfully borrowing themes from folk music or past composers to create new works, Benjamin Britten taking from Henry Purcell or Vaughn William from Greensleeves for example.

Two Way Traffic

Popular composers have merrily stolen from classical sources, the melody for Eric Carmen’s “All by myself” is lifted from the middle movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto or “Strangers in Paradise” purloined from Borodin’s Polotsvian Dances so maybe it is time to even up the score.

Berlin state of mind

The original Heroes album grew out of what is now known as David Bowie’s Berlin period. He met with Kraftwerk. He also worked with with Brian Eno. Eno’s subsequent success as a producer and his early adoption of electronic music now place him in an imaginary pantheon of rock. However anyone old enough to have lived through the 70s music scene will remember him as quite a marginal figure at the time, ploughing a lonely furrow.

Genius Loves Company

With apologies to Ray Charles, the collaboration between these two disparate artists only vaguely connected by both having once been part of the brief Glam Rock scene was rock alchemy. The album is a brilliant fusion of commercial accessible tracks, the title track for example and strange experimental atmospheric pieces such as Moss Garden. It was also ground breaking for its diverse musical influences specifically middle eastern and oriental music.

Glass hits a new Low

The composer Philip Glass was originally part of the minimalist movement but like other members of this loose grouping such as John Adams he has shaken off most of the restrictive formalism that came to characterise the style. The work under review here is his second shot at symphonising Bowie as he had already rendered the other main Berlin period album “Low” into an orchestral work.

Symphony in name only

Philip Glass has picked five tracks from the original album and another track “Abdulmajid” that cropped up as a bonus track on a subsequent cd re-release and made these into six movement symphony. In doing so he has disregarded the original track order. It is obvious that Philip Glass is not confining himself to the

Classical symphony form there are two too many movements for a start. I for one cannot readily discern a symphonic structure in the work. It may be that I am expecting Haydn’s Military Symphony and the symphony has moved on from there in the last two centuries so perhaps it is me who is remiss.

Glass Spider to Philip Glass

Philip Glass has borrowed themes and motifs from each of the six tracks and realised them anew in a musical context. In “Sons of the Silent Age” for example Mr. Glass takes the vocal line and turns it into an instrumental theme which runs the gamut of different orchestral parts in an almost fugal fashion the effect of which is beautiful.

Heroes stand alone

The Heroes Symphony can be enjoyed with reference to the original Heroes album but I also believe that it is a freestanding piece that is to say if the listener had never heard or heard of the original Heroes album he or she could still appreciate the symphonic interpretation.

Sweetly reminiscent

When I listen to this symphony I am reminded of other composers’ work. It is inevitable when your ears hear something new you search for familiar points of reference. I cannot help being reminded of the film music which Bernard Hermann composed particularly the music to “Vertigo.” This is not an original observation. Supposedly some brave journalist has even put this similarity to Philip Glass and got a frosty response. There is also some common ground with Michael Nyman and his music for “The Draughtsman’s Contract” for example.

Nature imitates artifice

In the symphony the orchestra has a denatured almost synthesised sound and yet the orchestration is almost entirely conventional save perhaps for the inclusion of a bass clarinet. The concept of colour in music is a bit tenuous but if you are willing to indulge this conceit then I would say this symphony is painted in shades of grey not unlike a Shostakovich symphony. The string section is kept under a tight leash and most of the bells and whistles are just that with the star turns done by wind and percussion.

She had a what?

I don’t know how or why but to me the Heroes Symphony also calls to mind Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. It could be the oriental and middle eastern influence and a hint of an (unexplained) narrative in the piece but other than that I cannot really rationalise this comparison.

Buy this

In conclusion I think this brilliant contemporary work is a riposte to all the naysayers and Jeremiahs out there who say that classical music has run out of road.


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