How an Italian landmark inspired Glass’ ‘Triumph of the Octagon’

Philip Glass takes a bow after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs his Symphony No. 11 on Feb. 19, 2022.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Although composer Philip Glass and conductor Riccardo Muti are both classical-music giants, the two had never met before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed the minimalist pioneer’s Symphony No. 11 in February 2022. It was the first time any Chicago ensemble presented a Glass symphony and the first time that Muti conducted one of the composer’s works. 

To borrow a famous line, it was the start of a beautiful friendship. As a result of their meeting, Muti and the CSO commissioned a work by the composer. The 10-minute opener, titled The Triumph of the Octagon, will receive its world premiere Sept. 28-30 during the second set of concerts of the CSO’s 2023-24 season, with Muti on the podium. In addition, Muti, who was named Music Director Emeritus for Life in June, and the orchestra will perform the new work as part of a 11-city European tour in January.

Glass attended the Feb. 19, 2022, concert, and afterward, the two sat down together in Muti’s Symphony Center studio for a conversation. The idea for a commission was hatched then. The inspiration for the piece came from a photo in Muti’s studio that depicts the octagon-shaped Castel del Monte, a 13th-century citadel in the Apulia region of Muti’s native Italy. Built by Frederick II, the distinctive structure displays Greco-Roman, Islamic and Gothic influences. In 1996, the castle was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The 13th-century fortress Castel del Monte inspired Philip Glass to compose "The Triumph of the Octagon," which receives its world premiere Sept. 28-30. The landmark also figures into the plot of Umberto Eco's novel "The Name of the Rose."

Wikimedia/Itto Ogami

Muti spent his early childhood in Apulia, and when he was 5 years old, he and his brothers were taken to the site in a horse-drawn carriage. When the curtains were pulled back upon their arrival in early morning, the future conductor was astounded at what he saw.

“It’s one of the first memories I have,” Muti said. “I saw this incredible, magical castle. And from that moment, it became part of my life. I’ve read everything about Frederick II, and my dream was one day to find a little piece of land just under the castle. So when I retire or when I have free time, I want to go there and sit and just contemplate this mysterious castle.”

Glass, who has had a lifelong fascination with mathematics and patterns, was taken with Muti’s story and the Castel del Monte and decided to base his new piece on the eight-sided shape at the heart of the building’s design. In response to a request from Experience CSO, Glass released this statement about the new work:

“It is with great pleasure that my latest work, The Triumph of the Octagon, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will premiere on Sept. 28.

“Chicago is one of my artistic homes, having studied at the University of Chicago. I was fortunate to hear the CSO play many times during my years in Chicago as a young musician. This experience undoubtedly helped to shape my future as a musician and composer. 

“The title of the work was inspired by a conversation with Riccardo Muti about Castel del Monte, a 13th-century castle in Italy with eight octagonal towers. I dedicate this work to Maestro Muti, in honor of his many successes as conductor of the CSO and important contributions to the world of music.”