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It was the very ubiquity of the Four Seasons that led Robert McDuffie to ask Philip Glass (b. 1937) to create a modern counterpart. Contemplating a proposal to record the Four Seasons, his reaction was “Why does an American violinist from Macon, Georgia want to bring out the Vivaldi Four Seasons when it’s the most recorded piece of all time?” he said in a June 2010 podcast for the London Philharmonic.
That musing led him to approach Glass, who he calls the “American Vivaldi” because of common elements in their styles: “the chugging ostinatos and the pleasant melodies up top, the repetition; maybe not the formulaic repetition that Glass has become famous for, but I certainly do see a lot of similarities.”
Conversely, McDuffie, who is “not immune from making some grand sweeping statements about my profession,” has called Vivaldi “the world’s first minimalist. That may or may not be true, but it’s pretty close.” Indeed, though it is probably off by thousands of years, it is nonetheless pretty close. The persistent driving rhythms, and entire movements that consist of arpeggios and other figurations that do not fit the standard conception of melody, are not just common to minimalism and Vivaldi, but stand out in much 18th-century music, notably Bach. Peter Schickele exploited this commonality in 1989 when, as P.D.Q. Bach, he exploded the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Keyboard into the “Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz,” an epic spoof of Glass.
Ridicule and critical hostility are something else Vivaldi and Glass have shared. Eighteenth-century opinion-makers dismissed Vivaldi’s music as showy, vulgar, and facile, even while some publishers contended to get it before an eager public, and others just put out pirate editions. Glass has heard his music dismissed as simplistic, dull, and mindless, even while he became one of the few modern classical composers to reach a sizable audience, crossed over into rock and popular music, and amassed a sizable portfolio of screen credits, if not quite as sizable as Vivaldi’s.
One of those who dismissed Glass was McDuffie. In his conservatory days, McDuffie was “part of a group of Juilliard hotshots who loved to make fun” of Glass. “He was the butt of many jokes. We were just ignorant. We didn’t really know his work. It’s very easy to copy his structure, his formula,” said McDuffie, but not “the DNA inside” the music that makes Glass special.
Glass himself has never liked the term “minimalist,” though he has learned to coexist peacefully with it; preferring to speak of himself as a composer of “music with repetitive structures.” And over those structures he often writes long-lined melodies that would be perfectly at home in music of Brahms’ era. And tonight’s concerto has relatively little of the “static harmony” that is part of the textbook definition of minimalism.
McDuffie’s conversion from Glassophobe to Glassophile was completed while he was learning the first Glass Violin Concerto for a 1999 recording. In 2002, he met with Glass and suggested a new Four Seasons.
They actually discussed using Vivaldi’s sonnets, though Glass was more enthusiastic about using poems by Allen Ginsburg. In the end, Glass used no literary anchor – at least, none that he has mentioned.
McDuffie had a few specific requests. One was that it use synthesizer instead of harpsichord. (“I wanted the original, the indigenous, rock and roll Philip Glass that turned David Bowie on.”) Another was that it have what McDuffie called a “kick-ass rock and roll ending.” And, “I specifically asked for four large movements, originally thinking that we would be naming the movements as seasons until we both disagreed on what was summer and what was winter,” said McDuffie. In the second movement, “I thought of icy cold beauty and he thought of gentle summer winds with people lying on the grass in the sun.”
Glass saw the disagreement as an opportunity to let the audience draw its own images from the music. “After all,” Glass wrote in program notes for the April 2010 European premiere of the work by McDuffie and the London Philharmonic, “if Bobby and I are not in complete agreement, an independent interpretation can be tolerated and even welcomed. Therefore, there will be no instructions for the audience, no clues as to where Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall might appear in the new concerto – an interesting, though not worrisome, problem for the listener.” It allows for an amusing exercise in psychological guesswork (for example, if Glass thought the second movement was summer, isn’t it likely he intended his seasons to go in the same order as Vivaldi’s? or not…) or probability (there are four possible combinations of the season movements if you assume they follow each other in calendar order; if not, there are 24).
Each of the four season movements is preceded by a movement for unaccompanied violin, which Glass suggests “could be played together as separate concert music when abstracted from the whole work,” a handy thing for the violinist who forgets to bring an orchestra.
The concerto was finished in fall of 2009 – Glass has a long waiting list – and premiered that December by McDuffie and the Toronto Symphony.