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Einstein on the Beach is an opera scored and written by Philip Glass and designed and directed by theatrical producer Robert Wilson. It also contains writings by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson and Lucinda Childs. Einstein on the Beach is described by Glass as an "Opera in four acts for ensemble, chorus and soloists."

This is Glass' first and longest opera score, taking approximately five hours (a little under three and a half hours on CD) to complete, with no intermission. Given the length of the opera the audience was free to enter and leave as they desired.

Einstein's musical score became the first in a loosely related thematic trilogy, followed by Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983). These three operas were described by Glass as "portrait" operas that portray men whose personal vision transformed the thinking of their times through the power of ideas rather than by military force.

Composition and performance history

Glass and Wilson first met to discuss the prospects of a collaborative work, and decided on an opera of between four and five hours in length based around a historical persona. Wilson initially suggested Charlie Chaplin or Adolf Hitler, whom Glass outright rejected, while Glass proposed Mahatma Gandhi (later the central figure of his opera Satyagraha). Albert Einstein was the eventual compromise.

Einstein on the Beach premiered on July 25, 1976 at the Avignon Festival in Francemarker, performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble. The opera was also staged that summer in Hamburgmarker, Parismarker, Belgrademarker, Venicemarker, Brusselsmarker, Rotterdammarker. In November 1976, Einstein was performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in New Yorkmarker.

The Brooklyn Academy of Musicmarker next mounted the opera in 1984. A one-hour documentary about this production appeared on public television, titled "Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera."

In 1988, opera director Achim Freyer (who had staged the World Premiere of Glass' Akhnaten in Stuttgartmarker in 1984) designed and staged a reworked version in a highly abstract style, with new spoken texts from the early 20th century, at the Stuttgart State Opera House, Germany. As with the premiere, this version was also conducted by Michael Riesman.

In 1992 a revival was mounted by International Production Associates that included the participation of Mssrs. Wilson, Glass and Ms. Childs. The production was re-staged at the McCarter theater at Princeton University. It subsequently toured to Frankfurt, Melbourne, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo, Brooklyn (BAMmarker) and Paris.

A revival with the participation of all the original collaborators was commissioned by New York City Opera to open their 2009/2010 season. When General Manager designate Gerard Mortier withdrew from NYCO, the revival, along with the rest of Mr. Mortier's programming, was canceled. This revival was also supported by co-commissioners Chatalet, Het Muziektheater and English National Opera.

The violin part for the work has been performed by Tison Street and Paul Zukofsky.


From the beginning of Glass and Wilson's collaboration, they insisted on portraying the icon purely as a historical figure and not with any storyline attached to his image. While they did incorporate symbols from Einstein's life within the opera's scenery, characters, and music, they intentionally did not choose to give the opera a specific plot. Propelling idea of "non-plot" within Einstein on the Beach, its libretto employs solfege syllables, numbers, and short sections of poetry. In an interview, Glass comments that he originally intended for his audience to construct personal connections with both Einstein as a character and also with the music with that he assigns to the icon. For example, the music within the first of the opera's "Knee Plays" features repeated numbers accompanied by an electric organ. Glass states that these numbers and solfege syllables were used as placeholders for texts by the singers to memorize their parts, and were kept instead of replacing them with texts. This numerical repetition, however, offers an obvious interpretation as a reference to the mathematical and scientific breakthroughs made by Einstein himself. Of further reference to the icon's image, everything on the originally staged Einstein set, from costumes to lighting, depicts specific aspects that refer to Einstein's life.

Overall, the music assigned to Einstein demonstrates a circular process which becomes a repeating cycle that constantly delays resolution. This process uses both additive and subtractive formulas. The three main scenes within the opera—"Train," "Trial," and "Field/Spaceship"—allude to Einstein's hypotheses about his theory of relativity and unified field theory. Specifically, themes within the opera allude to nuclear weapons, science, and AM radio.

The opera consists of nine connected 20-minute scenes separated by "Knee Plays." Five "Knee Plays" frame the opera's structure and appear in between acts, while also functioning as the opening and closing scenes. Glass defines a "Knee Play" as an interlude between acts and as "the 'knee' referring to the joining function that humans' anatomical knees perform." While the "Knee Plays" helped to create the necessary time to change the scenery of Wilson's seven sets, these interludes also served a musical function. David Cunningham, a Glass scholar, writes that the intermittence of Glass' "Knee Plays" amongst the opera's four acts, serves as a "constant motif in the whole work."

The opera requires a cast of 2 female, 1 male, and 1 male child in speaking roles (for the Wilson production); a 16 person SATB chamber chorus with an outstanding soprano soloist and a smaller tenor solo part; 3 reed players: flute (doubling piccolo and bass clarinet), soprano saxophone (doubling flute), tenor saxophone (doubling alto saxophone); solo violin, and 2 synthesizers/electronic organs. The orchestration was originally tailored to the five members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, plus the solo violin.


  • Knee 1
  • Train 1
  • Trial 1
    • Entrance
    • "Mr. Bojangles"
    • "All Men Are Equal"
  • Knee 2
  • Dance 1
  • Night Train
  • Knee 3
  • Trial 2/Prison
    • "Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket"
    • Ensemble
    • I Feel the Earth Move
  • Dance 2
  • Knee 4
  • Building
  • Bed
    • Cadenza
    • Prelude
    • Aria
  • Spaceship
  • Knee 5

I Feel the Earth Move

"I Feel the Earth Move" is the third section in the TRIAL 2/PRISON section of the opera. The section is written in the same style as the rest of the opera, but has a traditional instrumentation of soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, omitting the electronic keyboard used in most of the segments in Einstein on the Beach. A poem by Christopher Knowles is read over the musical soprano saxophone and bass clarinet line, and in the poem's meanderings, it mentions such "TV personalities" as David Cassidy. A shortened version of this piece was chosen along with three other selections from Einstein on the Beach to appear on another Philip Glass album Songs from the Trilogy, which also included selections from Glass' operas Satyagraha and Akhnaten. The section's title is a reference to a Carole King song of the same name, from her album Tapestry.

Complete recordings

Two "full" performances of the opera have been released on record, the first in 1979 on Tomato Records (and later CBS Masterworks, now Sony Classical), the second in 1993 on Nonesuch Records. The first release was abridged to 160 minutes in order to fit onto four LP records—i.e. the opening scene's repeats were considerably shortened. The second release was lengthened to 190 minutes due to the technological capabilities of the compact disc. Markedly, the spoken parts of the 1993 recording were performed by the original actors with the exception of the late Samuel M. Johnson, who was replaced by Jasper McGruder.. In addition, the part of "The Boy" on the 1993 recording was performed by Jeremy Montemarano. All of the speaking roles recorded for this record were performed by the actors that toured with "Einstein on the Beach" during its 1992 world tour.

Cultural references

Pepsi Company Incorporated utilized the first "Knee Play" from Einstein on the Beach in its commercial of 2000, titled "No Brainer." Pepsi depicts the iconic character of Einstein as he chooses between Coke and Pepsi.

The classical guitarist and composer David Leisner transcribed a part of the opera for solo guitar, with permission from Glass.

Experimental band Man Man wrote a song called "Young Einstein on the Beach." It appears on their 2006 album Six Demon Bag.

Musical parodist Peter Schickele's alter ego P. D. Q. Bach wrote a Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz, which consists of endless repetitions of melodies from the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, in a Glass-style orchestration.

Rock band Counting Crows wrote a song titled "Einstein on the Beach ". It first appeared on the 1994 compilation "DGC Rarities Vol. 1" and later on 2003's "Films about Ghosts - The Best of Counting Crows".

Sitcom psychologist Frasier Crane complimented a love interest sighted at the opera in the episode Out with Dad: "I have laughed with her during Figaro and I've cried with her during Tosca. I even had a dream about her during Einstein on the Beach."

Indie rock band Edison Glass (whose name is a derived from what one might consider to be a musical collaboration between Thomas Edison and Philip Glass) refers to the opera in their song "Let Go", writing, "Last night I awoke, to an opera house full of empty seats performing Einstein on the Beach."

Comedian Emo Philips has performed an interpretive dance inspired by the opera, utilizing music from Glass's album, Glassworks.

External links


  1. Philip Glass, Music by Philip Glass (New York: Harper and Row, 1997) 40.
  2. Dunvagen Music Publishers, "Einstein on the Beach" (Recording), Nonesuch Records 1993, Liner notes written by Tim Page, (accessed October 22, 2007).
  3. Peter Lavezzoli, " The Dawn of Indian Music in the West", p.133.
  4. Stuttgart State Theater, performance programme, 1988
  5. Gerard Mortier resigns from New York City Opera
  6. Robert Schwarz, Minimalists (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996) 135.
  7. David Cunningham, "Einstein on the Beach" in Writings on Glass: Essays Interviews and Criticism. Edited by Richard Kostelanetz. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1997)153.
  8. Pepsi Co. Inc, "No Brainer" Commercial obtained by e-mail request from Pepsi Co. marketing branch in New York. November 11, 2005.
  9. Joanna Love-Tulloch, "Marketing American Identity: The Role of American Classical Music in Television Advertising," (Master's Thesis, University of Nevada, Reno, 2007), 69-86.
  10. Dunvagen Publishing, "Music of the Human Spirit" (Recording), Azica Records 2002, Liner notes by David Leisner (accessed October 22, 2007).
  11. Notes from
  12. Frasier season 7, episode number 159: Out with Dad. First aired February 10, 2000

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