The entry for Philip Glass in the sixth edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1980, is 24 lines long. The entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, published in 1992, is 190 lines long. In the course of those twelve years, the composer of the minimalist opera Einstein on the Beach became the most influential figure in postwar American classical music, and the first American composer since Aaron Copland whose work appealed to a mass audience.
By now, the word “minimalism” (for which there was no entry in Grove 6) is familiar to most non-musicians, and anyone who spends even a moderate amount of time listening to classical music will recognize the endlessly repeated rhythmic cells, brief snatches of melody, and long harmonic periods that are the building blocks of this music. What has been largely forgotten is the extent to which the adoption of these techniques by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and their fellow minimalists represented a radical—and purposeful—break with the immediate musical past.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.