Philip Glass

Philip Glass

(born Baltimore 31 January 1937)

The American composer, Philip Glass, is considered by some to be one of the most influential contemporary composers.

Associated with minimalism (in music, the use of short ideas which gradually change, resulting in an exceptionally hypnotic, layered effect), Glass himself prefers to describe his work as ‘music with repetitive structures’. Over the course of his 50-year career, he has evolved such repetitive structures to produce a style that is instantly recognisable as a piece of Philip Glass music.

Discover more about Philip Glass’s life and career in this guide, which includes his early influences and education, minimalistic music compositions and most famous operas. This article will also cover how his career developed, key achievements and more information on his best known works (and where you might have heard them).

The life of Philip Glass: A summary

Early life and education

Philip Glass showed talent from a young age, having developed a great love of music from his father who owned a record store in his home town of Baltimore. He later discovered that many relations in his father’s family had been musicians too, including a pianist cousin and several vaudeville performers. His parents were Latvian and Russian-Jewish emigrants who helped holocaust survivors at the end of World War II, welcoming them into their home to learn English, find a job and build their lives in the United States.

Glass learned to play the flute from 8 years old and then honed is focus onto the keyboard as his musical talents continued to develop. At 15 he studied mathematics and philosophy at the University of Chicago as part of an accelerated college programme. Glass went on to study composition at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, where among his fellow students was Steve Reich, the founding figure of the minimalist movement in music. Shortly after, Philip Glass won a BMI award for young composers – a small glimpse of the incredible musical career that was to follow.

Studies with Milhaud and subsequently with Nadia Boulanger in Paris eventually led him to reject the popular style of his contemporaries – which he considered to be music of the past masquerading as music of the present. While in Paris, Philip Glass became enamoured with French New Wave film, as well as the contemporary theatre scene. He was a regular theatre attender and made friends with actors, artists and directors of the day. This was a formative period which resulted in him contributing music to the 1965 staging of Samuel Beckett’s Play and composing his first film score for Chappaqua in 1966 – an early indication of Glass’s future illustrious movie soundtrack career.

Career highlights

A growing fascination with Indian classical music led to visits to India and contact with the pre-eminent sitar player, who later inspired The Beatles, Ravi Shankar. While working as Shankar’s assistant, Glass began to experiment by blending his Western training and with his work with Shankar.

While he was making his way as a composer in the 1960s and 1970s, Glass supported himself by working as a plumber and driving taxis. His epic first opera, Einstein on the Beach, launched his international fame in 1976, and he has gone on to write over 25 operas, as well as 14 symphonies, 11 concertos, much chamber and choral music, and several award-winning film scores.

Philip Glass compositions and operas include Mad Rush (1979), originally written for the Dalai Lama’s first public address in North America; Satyagraha (1980), loosely based on the life of Ghandi and the second part of Glass’s “Portrait Trilogy” of operas about men who changed the world; Glassworks (1982), a work of six movements designed to be shorter, more pop-orientated and accessible; Akhnaten (1983), the third of his “Portrait Trilogy” based on the life of the Pharaoh Akhnaten; Prophecies (1983), written for the pioneering art film Koyaanisqatsi ; Violin Concerto (1987), one of his most popular works, influenced by memories of his late father; and Metamorphosis (1989), inspired by Franz Kafka’s novella of the same name.

Glass has developed a distinguished movie soundtrack repertoire including Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Candyman (1992) and The Illusionist (2006), as well as his award-winning pieces for Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), The Truman Show (1998) The Hours (2002) and Notes on a Scandal (2006).

Later life

Receiving huge critical acclaim for his work in opera and permeating pop culture through movie soundtracks, it’s no surprise that Glass’s influence and musical stylings are still prevalent in society today, with The Philip Glass Ensemble, founded by Glass in 1968, still performing. Glass’s compositions are still prominent in the pop culture landscape, with several of his pieces featuring in the Netflix series Stranger Things.

In 2007 Olivier Award-winning director Phelim McDermott directed a new production of Glass’s 1980 composition Satyagraha at the ENO, the first of several collaborations between McDermott and Glass. McDermott directed a new production of Akhnaten in 2016, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera Production and cemented the English National Opera’s reputation as the ‘House of Glass’. Unsurprisingly, both of McDermott’s Philip Glass productions have become jewels in the ENO’s crown, being revived multiple times, selling out performances and transferring to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Glass has continued to produce new and exquisite work throughout the decades which has rightly earned him a multitude of accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale in 2012, the Glenn Gould Prize in 2016, a lifetime achievement award given to prominent musicians, and was named a Kennedy Centre honoree in 2018. In 2015 his critically acclaimed memoir Words without Music was published.

Glass's musical style and influence

While Glass’s very earliest works are simple, even naïve, in form, melody and harmony, his mature works demonstrate his definitive style of “music with repetitive structures” which create a shifting, hypnotic effect that can be immersive and meditative for the listener.

At first, Glass limited his material to only a few elements, but as he began to understand how to manipulate them, he developed the technique into something highly sophisticated and sonorously rich. To appreciate Philip Glass’s music, listeners must not expect conventional Western musical events, but rather yield themselves to sounds that twist and turn gradually.

Glass’s approach to word setting and language has also been unconventional. For example, the use of Sanskrit (an ancient and classical language of India) in Satyagraha, as well as the texts sung in their original languages in Akhnaten. Or in Einstein on the Beach, setting single words over such long paragraphs of music that the literal meaning is hard to discern.

His music has influenced contemporary popular music, and as such, Philip Glass has created a mass following and brought new audiences to contemporary opera.

Philip Glass’s music in action

Philip Glass’s most famous operas

  • Einstein on the Beach (1976)
  • The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1988)
  • The Perfect American (2011)
  • The Trial (2014)

Philip Glass remains a prominent figure in the ENO‘s repertoire to this day – learn more about Glass’s extraordinary work on our Discover Opera page.

Philip Glass FAQs

Yes, Philip Glass continues to perform around the world to this day.

Glass’s Metamorphosis is widely considered to be his most popular album, with songs featuring in the TV show Battlestar Galactica and his soundtrack for The Hours.

Philip Glass is 86 years old, born on 31 January 1937.

Philip Glass is best known for his minimalist compositions and award-winning movie soundtracks for The Hours, Notes on a Scandal and The Truman Show.

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland (USA). He spent his childhood living in Baltimore before attending the University of Chicago at 15.

Philip Glass is an American composer and pianist. He is one of the most influential composers of the 21st Century.