The Complete Piano Etudes
Philip Glass conceived The Etudes as a set of twenty works for solo piano in order to expand his piano technique. In the 1990’s Glass composed sixteen of the etudes with each taking a unique approach to the instrument. After a decade, the final four piano etudes were commissioned in celebration of Glass’ 75th birthday, premiering in their entirety in 2013. The complete collection of The Etudes are performed on one program by one to ten guest pianists in an evening of master piano works for the 21st century.
The Etudes program is currently being reimagined as an evening-length work for solo piano and contemporary dance scheduled to premiere in Fall 2023.
Glass’ Etudes waxed delicate and grandiose, sultry and melancholy, ghostly and hard-edged.
The Complete Piano Etudes
By Thomas May
“The emphasis in my work has been on collaboration throughout ... I’m convinced that this is one of the major reasons that I followed a path different from other composers,” Philip Glass once remarked. This collaborative impulse has taken a wide variety of forms—from his work with the Philip Glass Ensemble (founded a half century ago) to the many scores for films, operas, and other stage works that figure so prominently in his catalogue.
The tradition of the keyboard etude betrays its origins in the name (French for “study”). In the classical sphere, etudes developed hand-in-hand (so to speak) with the evolving piano as practical exercises to focus on specific aspects of technique. That down-to-earth, pragmatic function still exists as a kind of subtext in the great etude cycles of composers like Chopin and Debussy, yet they sublimated this into genuine, independent works of art—studies of sonority, texture, the imagination itself.
Glass initially took up this venerable genre with that practical objective in mind—doubly so, in fact, since he used the etudes to pose himself challenges in his roles as a performer and a composer. Growing up in Baltimore in the 1940s (where his father operated a radio repair shop and record store), he studied flute but liked to “eavesdrop” on his brother’s piano lessons and became closely attached to the keyboard. It’s where Glass generally composes, and in the 1980s he began giving solo piano recitals on tour. But he needed some fresh repertoire for the instrument and started transcribing some of his other pieces, such as incidental music to a staged version of Kafka’s famous narrative “the Metamorphosis” and his score for the Errol Morris film The Thin Blue Line, creating a piano suite he called Metamorphosis (included on Glass’s celebrated album Solo Piano from 1989).
A few years later Glass began writing his first series of etudes specifically to work on his playing technique. he also wanted to address issues of writing for the piano itself (as opposed to the earlier transcriptions of pre-existing material). another incentive was the composer’s friendship with the conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies, one of his most significant advocates over many years; the first group of six etudes was presented as a birthday gift to Davies.
While each of the etudes is by itself a miniature, the experience of the whole has a characteristically Glassian epic dimension. this is a composer who thrives on the massively scaled architecture of opera—even cycles of operas. His first, Einstein on the Beach, turned out to be just the beginning of a trilogy of “portrait” operas exploring iconic figures who changed the course of history (the other two were Gandhi and the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten).
Glass says that early on he projected writing a large-scale cycle of 20 etudes (which he initially considered calling preludes). But because of the demands for his time from competing projects—he has remained among the most prolific composers for decades—the etudes progressed in fits and starts for just over two decades, from 1991 to 2012, and were published as a complete set of 20 etudes in 2014.
The Etudes thus span a lengthy arc of Glass’s career, accompanying his development over this time frame as an artist in terms of techniques but also topics and inspirations that he was exploring in other works. There’s also a notable difference in attitude between the two collections. Book two (Etudes 11–20) trace out more harmonically daring paths, for example, and take shape in intriguingly unpredictable forms.
The nature of the medium makes these deeply intimate, introspective works, illuminating Glass’s musical ideas directly, without the intervention of the narratives, characters, and ideas we find in his stage and film compositions. along with a sense of self-communing with the elements of his own musical language, the Etudes at moments suggest a discourse with composers of the past who have left their mark on the omnivorously curious Glass. this is never by way of obvious “imitation”—Glass’s voice remains among the most original, and most immediately identifiable, in modern music—but takes place subtly, almost under the radar. The most prominent of these past presences is Schubert, a composer especially cherished by Glass (they even share the same birthday).
The input of additional interpreters alongside Glass is bound to amplify this sense of connection with other traditions, since the Etudes lend themselves to different ways of articulating and emphasizing what is written down in the score. No. 6, for example, can be rendered with the tempestuousness more usually associated with a Liszt, while the agitations of No. 11 share something with the C-minor despair of Beethoven. the rippling figurations and displacements of Nos. 7 and 11 open up possibilities of a jazz-inflected style. curiously, the minor key dominates in Book one (Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9), while the home keys of Book Two are evenly split between major and minor (the minor-key Etudes here are Nos. 11, 12, 16, 17, and 18).
Overall, the variety of the etudes refutes the lazy clichés about Glass’s so-called Minimalist style—a term that has always struck the composer as misguided. Once dismissed as “going-nowhere” or “stuck-record” music, his style here opens up an emotional richness that links the etudes to the great tradition of piano literature.