MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Birthday Salute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle

And so Sir Harry turns 80! Harrison Birtwistle has created some of the most strangely arresting soundscapes among the composers of our time. It’s extremely difficult music to write about, as I’ve discovered with various assignments over the years. Music that defies even more than most the feeble attempt to circumscribe it with mere words — it makes mincemeat of those who try — but that can strike you as uncannily direct and visceral. (See what a knot he just got me caught up in?)

Among my favorites of his “satellite” works are Earth Dances, The Shadow of Night, and Night’s Black Bird — disturbing and thrilling works Birtwistle conceives as orchestral “processions” and “imaginary landscapes.”

All of these seem to be parts of a vaster, labyrinthine work-in-progress, with a number of threads interwoven among them. Chief among these is a tension between linear and circular patterns, between an “ordinary” sense of chronological time and a heightened awareness of other kinds of times.

Tom Service offers this lovely, user-friendly intro to the utterly distinctive world of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, including Panic, The Cry of Anubis, Secret Theatre, Earth Dances, and the Violin Concerto.

In his excellent series of guides to contemporary composers, Service writes:

So where was the crucible of Birtwistle’s creative imagination? Manchester in the 1950s. Born in Accrington in 1934, and growing up as a clarinetist playing in local theatre bands, Birtwistle studied in the north west with what would become an (in)famous group of composers and musicians: Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, pianist John Ogdon, and trumpeter, conductor, and composer Elgar Howarth.

The usual story about what this “Manchester school” achieved was that they ripped up the rule book, and made British music confront contemporary continental modernisms that previous generations and the establishment had been frightened of. That’s true, to the extent that Harry, Max, and Sandy did engage with and devour everything they could get their hands on by Schoenberg or Webern or Stravinsky, and one of the pieces that changed Birtwistle’s life was Boulez’s “Le marteau sans maître.”

But just as there was a move to the modern, there was an equivalent excavation of the musical and mythical past, as Max and Harry delved into medieval music, into plainchant and polyphony, to find new-yet-old ways of structuring and thinking about what music could be.

Filed under: anniversary, composers, new music

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  1. Tom Luce says:

    Very interesting and timely article. Birtwistle’s music is fascinating if never an easy experience. His operas are amongst the modern age’s finest, in particular his first,”Punch and Judy”, a profound if very disturbing study of cyclical inter generational cruelty. Tom Luce

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