The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 7 - A Toltec Symphony

About the Work

Glass_Honors_Update Composer: Philip Glass
© Richard Freed

Philip Glass's Seventh Symphony, composed last year under a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra in honor of Leonard Slatkin's 60th-birthday season, with support from the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, receives its premiere performances in the present concerts.

The score, dedicated to Leonard Slatkin, calls piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, rattle, tom-tom, wood block, glockenspiel, piano, celesta, harp, strings, organ, and chorus. Duration, 30 minutes.

Some thirty-five years ago we began encountering the term 'minimalism,' describing an approach to musical composition based largely on the repetition of short motifs or phrases. While much of the public tended to regard this development dismissively, there were composers who embraced it in ways that not only demonstrated its range and flexibility but also enabled them to put a personal stamp on their work. No one became more successful in this respect, or more prolific within these flexible parameters, or more highly regarded, on the part of his colleagues and an ever broadening public, than Philip Glass?who, however, refused to be limited or 'typed' as a 'minimalist.' One might say that he transcended the boundaries of minimalism (at least as perceived by the large public), and simply used that system as a point of departure in forging his own distinctive and effectively communicative style.

Indeed, what one notices more than the evidence of minimalist techniques is the breadth of interests and the similarly broad range of media represented in Mr. Glass's sizable catalogue of works. In addition to his six earlier symphonies, he has composed ballets and concertos, chamber music and operas, incidental music for the theater, and a large number of film scores. He has toured and recorded with his own ensemble, and he appeared in the Washington area as recently as two months ago with the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the University of Maryland, while commissions and performances come at an ever increasing frequency from orchestras, festivals and other performing institutions around the world. (His appearance in College Park coincided with the release of a Naxos CD of his Second and Third symphonies, and an Orange Mountain Music CD of his music for the David Gordon Green film Undertow.) He composed the music for the lighting of the torch and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, and for this year's Cultural Olympiad in Athens he composed the 90-minute Orion. Both his Heroes Symphony, composed for the choreographer Twyla Tharp, and his Low Symphony are based on music by the rock icons David Bowie and Brian Eno; some of his stage works are based on the memorable films of Jean Cocteau. More conspicuously, though, among his works in various forms, are The Canyon and other big orchestral pieces he categorizes as 'portraits of nature,' and several that reflect his abiding interest in the spiritual heritage of the East, of Africa and of the early cultures of our own hemisphere.

This came about in a way no one, least of all Glass himself, could have anticipated. As a young man he followed the tradition established by earlier generations of American composers in going to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. While there he took on an unrelated assignment from a film producer: transcribing the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar's music for the Conrad Rooks film Chappaqua into Western notation. This project had a profound effect on him, firing up an intense interest in the traditions and techniques of Indian music and provoking a thorough rejection of what he had composed up to that point. His productive curiosity led to travel and research in India and its neighboring countries, in North Africa, and other areas far from the musical centers of the West. He acquainted himself with Eastern cultures and those of the pre-Columbian Americas, and the intriguing results have been works in which intellectual and spiritual borders and are happily bridged or simply ignored in favor of a limitless 'world view.'

One recent example is his twelve-movement, hundred-minute Symphony No. 5, composed in 1999 under a commission from the Salzburg Festival: that work's subtitle, Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya, illustrates a 'bridge between the past and the future,' with texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, African chants and the writings of our own Thomas Merton, sung by five soloists, an adult chorus and a children's chorus. His choral/orchestral Itaipu is based on a Brazilian legend and incorporates a Guarani Indian text. His best-known operas are Satyagraha, Akhnaten (a work one writer characterized as 'singing archæology') and Einstein on the Beach. Among the films for which he has composed music are Koyaanisqatsi, Mishima, Powaqqatsi, The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, The Hours, and The Fog of War. His most recent symphonic premiere took place in Lincoln, Nebraska, last September 18, when Victor Yampolsky conducted the Omaha Symphony Orchestra in the first performance of the Piano Concerto No. 2 ( After Lewis & Clark ) , with two soloists: the pianist Paul Barnes, and the Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. The second movement of that concerto bears a dedication to Sacagawea, remembered as the famous explorers' indispensable translator, and its musical materials were drawn from the folklore of her own tribe.

The new symphony introduced in the present concerts is not only the first work commissioned from Mr. Glass by the NSO, but also the first work of his performed by the orchestra. Its title identifies it as relating to one of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and our own Southwest. A chorus is involved in the second and third movements; the sung material contains no actual words, but is made up of loose syllables that add to the evocative context of the overall orchestral texture. The composer has kindly provided the following background:


The world 'Toltec' in the title of the Symphony No. 7 refers to the tradition and beliefs which were the cultural and spiritual matrix of Mesoamerica and which began many centuries before the European invasion. Mesoamerica is now believed to have extended from central Mexico to the north as far as New Mexico and Texas in the United States, and to the south to include Guatemala and Nicaragua. Though its roots began, according to recent research, some five thousand years ago among the Olmec, and achieved its peak in the times of Teotihuacan (500 BC to 500 AD), the traditional belief was that the Toltec culture reached its height in the city of Tula and dominated that part of the world from 700 AD to 1100 AD. The Post-Classic Mayan and Aztec periods that followed maintained the Toltec accomplishments in mathematics, precision in making calendars, building and architecture.

Equally important were the Toltec developments in social organization and personal spiritual development. Like many indigenous traditions, the Toltecs emphasized the relationship with the forces of the natural world (the sun, earth, water, fire and wind) in developing their own wisdom traditions. These kinds of practices can still be found among some of the indigenous peoples of Mexico today, e.g. the Wirrarika from North Mexico.

This Symphony is inspired by the Wirrarika sacred trinity, as indicated in the respective movement headings: THE CORN , THE HIKURI (THE SACRED ROOT ), and THE BLUE DEER .

THE CORN represents a direct link between Mother Earth and the well-being of human beings. But it also represents the responsibility of the people to nurture the gifts of Mother Earth?the corn which will sustain them.

THE SACRED ROOT is found in the high deserts of north and central Mexico, and is understood to be the doorway to the world of the Spirit.

THE BLUE DEER is considered the holder of the Book of Knowledge. Any man or woman who aspires to be a 'Person of Knowledge' will, through arduous training and effort, have to encounter the Blue Deer. The Blue Deer might be seen as a literal blue deer or something more abstract?for example, a vision, a voice that one might hear, or a thought uninvited but present in the mind of the practitioner.

When I was invited to compose a work for Leonard Slatkin's birthday season, I discussed with him the possibility of a symphony based on the Toltec wisdom tradition. As a man who has single-mindedly devoted himself to becoming a Man of (Musical) Knowledge I thought he would be intrigued by the Toltec point of view. He accepted my suggestion with enthusiasm, and this is the result.

Finally, I would like to thank Victor Sanchez who, through his books, teaching and his fieldwork, has made a lifetime effort to preserve and clarify the Toltec tradition for people today. He has kindly and patiently 'opened the door' to this tradition for me.

--Philip Glass
November 2004