Philip Glass, a minimalist composer, broke the rules of traditional opera with his composition, Einstein at the Beach. The opera premiered on July 25, 1976 and is based on Albert Einstein as a “scientist, humanist, and an amateur musician.” At a first listen of Einstein at the Beach, the music seems be random and has no sense of direction. It is as if Glass’s music acts as a spell that can easily hypnotize, or, negatively put, lose the listener. But, with a closer look at the musical score, the overall structure and harmonic content may not be as crazy as it seems. Although Einstein at the Beach sounds far different and contains a different plot, the structure and harmonic content isn’t as far of a stretch. Musically, this opera serves as a transformation from 19th century opera to 20th century opera.
First, Einstein at the Beach, contains five “Knee Plays”, which act, essentially, as preludes, interludes, or postludes in-between the Acts. These “ludes” are found in operas in earlier centuries as well with the player dressing up as Einstein. Glass labels them differently, but they serve a similar and different purposes than the preludes in Bizet’s opera Carmen. The fact that Glass changes the label from “prelude” to something different shows a transformation already. Each “Knee Play” contains the most important musical material throughout the opera. In particular, Knee Play 4, prelude to Act IV, is written four chorus and solo violin. The structure of Knee Play 4 contains a theme played by the solo violin, which Glass labels as A1, with an added theme with the choral voices labeled as A2. These themes are heard previously however in Act 1, Scene 1. The middle theme, labeled as C3, are simple different materials of a previous middle them in the second Knee Play, bases on scale passages. The end of Knee Play 4, the theme of A1 and A2 return. So when put together, the themes from Knee Play 4 are: (A1 + A2) – C3 – (A1 + A2). Yes, the themes are more complex and have a complex pattern, but they don’t differ much from themes you would hear in Carmen, such as the festive music heard in the Prelude of the opera and in Act IV. It is easy to say that the functions in earlier operas are easily depicted and heard, which the case in 20th century operas isn’t always true. It is the transformation of themes, in and out of the opera that are important.
Besides themes, the harmonic movement in Einstein in the Beach shows a transformation from operas in the earlier centuries. Knee Play 4 contains chords that are recurring. Starting on an f minor chord (i) and what seems to be in the key of f minor, the progression continues to Db major (VI), Bbb major (IVb). The Bbb chord serves as a pivot chord for a different key for the chords that follow. In the key of E, Bbb now serves as A major (IV) with a B major chord (V) following and finally an E major (I), tonic of the new key. The complexity is easily seen but the fact of the matter is that there is, in fact, a particular structure. It isn’t a typical, I, IV, V, I progression typically seen in earlier centuries. The progression itself is transformative and serves to the bigger picture of the way music as changed from the previous century.
20th century music is a transformation of music in previous centuries. The progressions and themes used in Einstein at the Beach are simply transformations of music that came before, within the opera and even with music outside in different centuries. Philip Glass even states that the “opera begins with a 19th century train and ends with a twentieth-century spaceship.” This shift from 19th to 20th century, proves that there is a transformation that takes place through the opera and can be understood with an analysis of the music. Within the bigger picture, I see Glass depicting the very apparent transformation of music from 19th century to 20th century.
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