top of page


Violin Concerto (1987)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

I. 1st Movement

II. 2nd Movement

III. 3rd Movement


Premiered in April 1987, Philip Glass' first Violin Concerto represented a turning point in his artistic trajectory, shifting from chamber music to the orchestral (he has composed 21 symphonies as of 2021). The year also marked a turning point in the cold war. In his third year as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced domestic reforms in religious tolerance and liberties in journalist reporting. President Ronald Regan's now famous speech at Berlin's Brandenburg gate on June 12, 1987, went unnoticed until 1989, rebroadcasted with the fall of the Berlin Wall: "come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"



Through his operas, symphonies, compositions for his ensemble, and his wide-ranging collaborations with artists ranging from Twyla Tharp to Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen to David Bowie, Philip Glass has had an extraordinary and unprecedented impact upon the musical and intellectual life of his times.


Glass has written music for experimental theater and Academy Award-winning motion pictures such as The Hours and Martin Scorsese's Kundun, while Koyaanisqatsi, his initial filmic landscape with Godfrey Reggio and the Philip Glass Ensemble, may be the most radical and influential mating of sound and vision since Fantasia. His associations, personal and professional, with leading rock, pop, and world music artists date back to the 1960s, including the beginning of his collaborative relationship with artist Robert Wilson.


He was born in 1937 and grew up in Baltimore. He studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School, and in Aspen with Darius Milhaud. Finding himself dissatisfied with much of what then passed for modern music, he moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and worked closely with the sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar. He returned to New York in 1967 and formed the Philip Glass Ensemble – seven musicians playing keyboards and various woodwinds, amplified and fed through a mixer.



The new musical style that Glass was evolving was eventually dubbed "minimalism." Glass himself never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures." Much of his early work was based on the extended reiteration of brief, elegant melodic fragments that wove in and out of an aural tapestry.


There has been nothing "minimalist" about his output. Glass has composed more than twenty-five operas, large and small; fourteen symphonies, thirteen concertos; soundtracks to films ranging from new scores for the stylized classics of Jean Cocteau to Errol Morris's documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara; nine string quartets; a growing body of work for solo piano and organ. He has collaborated with Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, and Doris Lessing, among many others. (Courtesy of Philip Glass)



"The Violin Concerto was written to be popular," writes Glass. "Written to be liked. And it is. My father had died in 1971 and he was a great lover of violin concertos. I wrote the piece in 1987 thinking, let me write a piece that my father would have liked–it's for my dad." The concerto was composed for violinist Paul Zukofsky, conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and commissioned by the American Composer's Orchestra. Premiere on April 5, 1987, Glass set out to compose five movements but settled on the traditional three-movement scheme "by accident" when it became too long (though Glass isn't shy from an extended length, Einstein on the Beach is five hours). Zukofsky requested a high and slow finale, and Glass obliged with the works' third movement. The three movements define the composer's transparency of style, maximizing the most out of limited material, meditating on time through gradual additive changes and repetition, and distilling melody and harmony into the purest ingredients. 


Glass channels Baroque-kissed elements through his modern symphonic microscope. Pulsing chords open the first movement, prefacing the fiery oscillations that alternate with sustained tones, the solo and orchestra taking turns, trading roles, then joining forces. A passacaglia (repeating bass line) in the cellos and bass marks the second movement. The violin showcases the beauty in simplicity, sustained tones hovering above a current of strings before it, too, mirrors the orchestra. Glass adds instruments layer by layer at the start of the third, forming a pyramid. The reprise of the first movement fashions the concerto into a palindrome, a reverse reflection, closing with an afterimage of sorts of Glass and his father. Ending with a heavenly high violin (father) and earthly low double basses (son) in octave union, a stream of pulses (life) separating the two.


In addition, to solo violin, the 30-minute concerto calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.

bottom of page