During the 1980s, Philip Glass became well known for frequently traversing the borders between high and low art, popular and classical music. He collaborated with artists such as David Byrne and Suzanne Vega and even did a couple of celebrity product endorsements. In the 1990s, however, Glass seemed to have made a serious effort to establish himself more firmly in the classical music canon, as reflected in the series of symphonies undertaken between 1992 and the end of the century. However, there is still a bifurcated quality to these works; two of the symphonies are based on songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno and were originally released on the genre-bending Point Music label, while the others were released with much less commercial splash by Nonesuch. Among these more conservative, "non-crossover" works, the Symphony No. 3 is perhaps the most restrained and classical in its form, character, and color.
Composed in 1995, the work is cast in four movements and scored for a small string orchestra (originally, the 19 strings of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra), and reflects Glass' attempt to synthesize and temper the austerity of his early minimalist ideals into a more lyrical and emotionally compelling style. The ponderous first movement, with its uneasy stepwise alterations in the plodding bass tones and pulsing string figurations, serves as a prelude to the lively second movement. Here, Glass subjects angular, restless melodies to gradual harmonic adornment, expanding from a nimble unison line into complex polyphony. This harmonic process is propelled forward by incisive rhythms and constant metric twists. The third movement begins with the quintessential Glass string texture: arpeggiated minor triads in the lower strings with a simple, syncopated melody in the middle register. This familiar texture, however, clothes a centuries-old form: the chaconne. (Of course, one could say Glass has long been writing chaconnes without calling them such, since the term simply implies variations on a repeating harmonic progression.) Glass adds layers of figuration or melody to the orchestral texture with each iteration of the repeating chord scheme, so that by the end of the movement it seems that virtually everyone in the ensemble follows a distinct line within a complex, polyphonic web. The symphony ends with a driving, syncopated finale that revisits the second movement's energy with even more harmonic unpredictability and rhythmic vigor.