Harrison Birtwistle died on April 18 at the age of 87. He was regarded as one of the foremost composers of his generation, a member of the so-called Manchester School alongside Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies. His music attracted adjectives like ”iconoclastic” and “uncompromising”; one famous anecdote recounts Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears walking out of his 1968 chamber opera, “Punch & Judy,” when it was performed at the Aldeburgh Festival. There is no doubt that his music has a unique force and impact, perhaps because of the way Birtwistle digested a whole host of influences—Boulez, Webern, Boulanger, Messiaen, Satie, Renaissance polyphony and lute music, Greek classical drama—into something that still sounds wholly its own (though not, perhaps, wholly of this earth). But it is also music of remarkable tenderness, particularly in late works like “The Moth Requiem” or his recent “Duet for Eight Strings.”
Birtwistle’s music means a huge amount to me. I discovered it in high school, and it made the equally thrilling rubicon of Stravinsky’s music sound, by comparison, like Delius. For a while my most prized possession as a teenager was a score of “Le Sacre du Printemps” signed by Birtwistle—I had met him at a concert—until, of course, I lent it to a girl in youth orchestra who I liked, and never got it back. At least she went on to study composition.
“Silbury Air” (1977, revised 2003)
Birtwistle never fussed about beginnings. “For many many years,” he said in an interview, “I started every piece of music with the same note, which seemed as good as any, E, right in the middle of the piano.”
“Silbury Air” begins with an E. It is named for a chalk mound in Wiltshire, over four thousand years old. The purpose of this enigmatic artificial outcropping that squats in the middle of the landscape is unknown. The piece, like many by Birtwistle, is a kind of labyrinth or recursive journey that suddenly finds itself back at a crossroads after furiously inventing and elaborating its material, intoned through an atavistic gesture on bass drum.
One of the lessons of Birtwistle’s music is that, in music, an entrance can equally function as an exit; each point of arrival is also one of departure. There is no one-way system. Birtwistle used the metaphor of walking around walled medieval Italian cities to describe the “imaginary landscapes” of his music: We light upon the same churches, squares, and monuments, view them from different angles, catch them in different lights at different times of day in different weather, glimpse them from near or far.
“Earth Dances” (1986)
If you see a rough granite outcropping, like those found on the blustery Lancashire moorland of Birtwistle’s upbringing, press your ear directly against it, close your eyes, and listen very closely: “Earth Dances” is the sound you will hear.
“Harrison’s Clocks” (1997-98)
What’s in a name? “Harrison’s Clocks” is a suite of five pieces for piano named for the 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison. Sharing a name with the composer interlocks his time mechanisms with Birtwistle’s explosive toccatas, their meticulously-constructed rhythmic cogs winding up and down. A plunging gesture in the left hand provides structural weave.
I once went to cover a performance of “Harrison’s Clocks” in London. When I arrived at the venue and walked to the desk to collect my ticket, I saw Birtwistle standing there, with his manager or agent or the like. Dewy-eyed with admiration, practically panting with reverence, I approached him. “Excuse me,” I burbled, “you’re Harrison Birtwistle.” A pause. “Yes, unfortunately…”
Everyone calls him “Harry.” Despite meeting Birtwistle a few times I have never felt able to do so. But I feel I am betraying the bullshit-free aura of Harry, and the no-nonsense attitude of his life and music. A story goes: By now knighted, Birtwistle was approached in the Royal Opera House foyer during a performance of “Gawain.” “You must be absolutely thrilled, Sir Harrison,” someone says. Birtwistle: ”I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about.”
One of Birtwistle’s breakout pieces was “Tragoedia,” from 1962, a rigorously hieratic chamber piece for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, and string quartet. The work takes its shape from the formal moves of Greek classical drama, but infuses them with goat-headed violence and power. “Panic” is another goat-dance, for bigger and brasher forces—solo alto sax and drum kit, percussion, and sternly-arrayed brass and winds—that caused a typically-English storm in a teacup when first performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995.
There is, unusually for Birtwistle, a sense of outside influences impinging on “Panic”: jazz, pop, and rock, in the playing of saxophonist John Harle and the solo drummer Paul Clarvis. But this is not “crossover.” The drum kit is not used in a remotely traditional way, even if we know the sounds well enough.
It adds up to something much… older. The solo sax and drums run amok among the ensemble—Birtwistle identifies the saxophone with Pan himself—sometimes breaking with the prevailing pulse in improvisatory sequences, accelerating and slowing of their own accord. At one point the drum kit stages a coup and recruits a snarling quartet of trombones for its adventures. “Panic” conveys the prevailing sense that, for Birtwistle, all music is an evocation of spirits, in this case a necessarily abrasive one that entails—to quote the poem that inspired the piece—“spreading ruin and scattering ban.”
Articles like this, straight to your inbox 💌
“Grimethorpe Aria” (1973)
“Grimethorpe Aria” was written for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, the elite exponents of the brass-playing traditions of Britain’s industrial North and Midlands. Birtwistle’s use of the brass band—an apparently conservative and traditionalist musical setup—is ruthlessly inventive. The lyric and lamenting qualities of euphonium and flugelhorn are drawn out in extended cantilenas. It is music, at times, of startling quiet. He breaks up the more chorale-like orchestration this ensemble usually deploys across its various sections to create something tangled and viscous. There is a huge, monumental climax, the earth from which the coal is hewn by these same musicians roaring into the music.
“The Mask of Orpheus” (1986)
The town of Accrington, where Birtwistle was born, is overlooked by a huge Victorian railway viaduct, built from interlocking arches. These arches become musical and dramatic architecture for the extraordinary second act of Birtwistle’s 1986 opera “The Mask of Orpheus.” The eponymous hero, man, myth (played by actor, singer, and puppet) passes through 17“ arches on his journey to the underworld, from which he fails to retrieve Euridice. The electronics by Barry Anderson (devised at IRCAM) that adjoin the opera draw on quite a different style, all brutalist concrete, steel, and strip lighting.
No journeys in Birtwistle are linear—though the musical accumulation of Act II has an extraordinary forward movement—which is why he is so drawn to myth. The retelling of myth means that its audiences become invested like children reading bedtime stories. We are captivated not by the revelation of the story, but by the narration as ritual and repetition, producing strange new offshoots, improvisation, and decay.
Birtwistle’s operas turn over these same ideas in their dramatic scenarios: the bloody sacrifices of Athenians to the Minotaur; Gawain’s journey to meet his destiny, which explores cycles of decay and renewal; the flinty brutality of Birwistle’s shocker “Punch & Judy,” which makes an eldritch horror of English seaside puppets.
“Secret Theatre” (1984)
All music, for Birtwistle, is theater. In “Secret Theatre” the instrumentalists are listed as dramatis personae. There are two groups on the stage: the “cantus” group, raised up, and to the back, more soloistic and melodic; and the “continuum’” group, more rhythmic and collectively-minded. As the piece unfolds musicians move from one group to the other, and back again, in an abstract game of musical roleplaying. Brief alliances are formed between sounds and timbres before dispersing and reforming elsewhere. What is the “secret” of the title? Maybe the rules of the game.
“Pulse Shadows” (1991-96)
“Pulse Shadows” is the confluence of two pieces, composed in parallel: nine movements for string quartet interleaved with nine settings of Paul Celan’s unflinching poems, for soprano joined by clarinet. In this form “Pulse Shadows” lasts nearly an hour, and has an astringency with few parallels in 20th century and contemporary music.
The interlocking sequence of songs and instrumental movements nods to Boulez’s settings of René Char in “Le Marteau sans Maître.” “Pulse Shadows” most clearly indicates Birtwistle’s debt to Boulez—an advocate for his music—though Birtwistle was never wholly smitten by schematic serialist procedures, working instead more intuitively. When writing out his scores Birtwistle famously never turned back to copy or check an earlier passage of music: infelicities are opportunities, happy foibles of memory and imagination, the sign of something living. Inspiration, Birtwistle said, was “something like the draft from under the door.”
Birtwistle admired the fragmentary obliquity of Celan’s brittle, icy poems, refracted in his raw writing for strings—choppy, frosted, glassy, and rough-hewn by turns. A solo clarinet bridges the gap between vocal and instrumental writing, offering an elliptical commentary on Claron McFadden’s singing.
“A Soldier’s Tale” (2017)
Many composers have lent their voices to Igor Stravinsky’s Faustian music theater fable “A Soldier’s Tale”: Aaron Copland, Milton Babbitt, Elliot Carter, and John Cage, for a start. Birtwistle took the role of the soldier in a 2017 recording with the late Oliver Knussen, who conducted musicians from the Royal Academy of Music; George Benjamin played the devil. On the same disc Birtwistle’s “Tombeau – In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky” offers a set of bleakly sculpted refrains.
The vocal performance is quintessential Birtwistle: laconic, a little weary, incredulous the whole thing seems to be happening at all, yet still dragged along by some kind of ritual inevitably. Man has fallen before; it’s sure as hell he’s going to fall again. His soldier sounds like he doesn’t particularly care that the chips are down, maybe because that’s where the chips inevitably end up."I am never 'happy' with anything." A Harrison Birtwistle playlist in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet
Melancholy is a big part of Birtwistle’s imagination. “The Shadow of Night” for orchestra makes extravagant use of a tune by John Dowland; so too his piece for clarinet, harp and strings, Melencolia I, after Albrecht Dürer’s famous misery guts. In “A Soldier’s Tale,” these feelings are etched into Birtwistle’s voice: petulant disdain, a kind of wry gloominess, a continental shrug of the shoulders. A BBC Radio 3 presenter relayed the following anecdote: Asked if he was happy with the premiere of a new orchestral piece, Birtwistle replied: “I… am never… happy…with anything.” ¶
💥 Subscribers keep VAN running! 💥
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 600 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year? You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.