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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Man in the Modernist Street (or Melancholy Thoughts on the Magnificence of Harrison Birtwistle)

Updated: Dec 30, 2022



In 2013, the 79 year-old Harrison Birtwistle gave a brief introductory interview before the British premiere of The Moth Requiem - twenty minutes of crepuscular sonic luminosity for a small ensemble of women's voices, harps and flute, whose text incorporates the names of moth species on the verge of extinction. He explained, in the understated, off-the-cuff manner to which his audiences had over the years become accustomed, that the piece was not so much a requiem in the ethical Christian sense, as a ritual of departure. Life, he implied, was an accumulation of irreversible partings, as people and things we know steadily disappear. "And...", he added ruefully, "I shall be going soon", provoking an affectionate laugh from those present.

It was a wonderfully characteristic piece of gently gruff humour, quietly revealing of both man and artist.

Now, a decade on from that occasion, the greatest English composer since Vaughan Williams, perhaps since Purcell, perhaps ever, has indeed gone - not that too many people outside those with a serious dedication to modern classical music will have noticed. The media response to his passing was predictably miserable. TV news coverage appeared non-existent, though there was, apparently, something typically bemused and uncomprehending on Radio 4.

One doubts that Birtwistle himself would be in any way surprised. In a nauseating consensus culture of cheaply manufactured "celebrity", "National Treasures" and "Nation's Favourites", in which it is not uncommon to hear The Happy Mondays or The Libertines referred to as "great musicians", politicians avoid expressing high cultural enthusiasms for fear of being thought "out of touch", and bright young people leave school without a clue as to who wrote War and Peace, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or composed The Marriage of Figaro, he was defined by a personal and creative integrity that stood out as little short of heroic.

He could, indeed, be charming and funny (as he was the one time I properly met him) but there was nothing about him that courted easy popularity. The role of Master of the Queen's Music, conscientiously filled by his lifelong friend/rival Peter Maxwell Davies, would not really have suited him. If he sometimes expressed himself in words that seemed rambling or casually assembled - (as when he told Radio 4 listeners he would take a Latin Primer to his desert island so he could read Homer in the original) - it was because his essential statements were musical ones and, though the music he summoned forth was often of extra-musical inspiration, it was never buttressed with superfluous explanatory verbiage.

There was something deeply, even sickeningly, ironic about the way in which this unassuming son of Depression-era Accrington bakers was sniped at, ignored and belittled by the great British middle classes. In 1993, I was present at a pre-concert talk-demonstration before the premiere of the piano concerto Antiphonies. In conversation with James Macmillan, the conductor, Pierre Boulez, and the soloist, Joanna MacGregor, Birtwistle usefully explained some features of the music's construction, followed by some live examples. No more than a second into the first of these - the piece's quiet and (as I hear it) entirely consonant first chord - a woman in the front row of the audience (doubtless a Radio 4 listener) shot her hand up.

"Are you trying to insult us?" she rapped out.

"No", the composer replied, calmly. "Why do you think I am?"

"I don't know", continued the distressed lady, "It just sounded very strange, and remote and intellectual, and I wondered if you were trying to insult us."

"Not at all", said Birtwistle. "I don't think music can be insulting in that sense." And things moved on.

Though he never rose to the bait, this kind of smug idiocy did clearly depress him, especially in his later years. Once asked what his music might mean to "the man in the street", he wearily responded "we have a problem with the man in the street". The problem, of course, being that whereas men (and women) in the street have absolutely no obligation to like Birtwistle, or anything else, they might at least approach him, when encountered, with a little intelligent curiosity and respect.

And it would help if a sycophantic media culture industry, intent upon exiling all but mainstream pop-music and reality tv to the extreme margins, showed a blind bit of interest. The Observer classical music critic Fiona Maddox, for example, was a friend of the ageing Birtwistle and had some success breaking down his notorious taciturnity in her 2014 book of conversations, Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks. The few inches of obituary she was allowed by her paper , however, - a measly amount of space compared to the several full pages they gave over to a drooling preview of Pete Doherty's self-justifying, entirely ghost-written, artistically un-illuminating autobiography a couple of weeks later - conveyed something of its subject's character but barely any sense of what might make a paunchy man of un-glamorous aspect, happily married to the same woman for half a century, not prone to leaving trails of self-indulgent disruption in his wake, and never convicted of drug offences significant - his music.

Over the weeks since his passing, I have been listening to as much of that music as possible and struggling to find words with which to convey just a little of its beauty, fascination and variety. (For, despite its striking consistency of style, Birtwistle's surprisingly large output is also amazingly varied.) I suspect I have failed. This has been the most extensively worked of my posts so to date, and has evolved from being an essayistic rumination on the uniqueness and "meaning" of Birtwistle's art into a roughly chronological listing of pieces I especially like, each embodying a particular characteristic. The result is certainly not intended as a "Best of Birtwistle" - it overlooks too many major works to be that - but perhaps it might just suggest a few avenues of exploration for the uninitiated. (The initiated are, of course, welcome to disagree with my assertions, though I hope they might be happy to spend some time in the company of a fellow enthusiast. There aren't enough of us around!)


Tragoedia (1965)

Birtwistle's strong musical personality was flickeringly discernable even in very early pieces, such as the wind quintet Refrains and Choruses (1957), with its sharply characterised instrumental writing, muscular rhythms, and boldly strophic form. It first becomes unmistakable, however, with this astringent sonic ritual for wind quintet and string quartet bound together by harp. This last instrument, especially prized by Birtwistle for its stark, atavistic qualities is a crucial, dominating presence in many of his works, where it is always entirely emancipated from its woozy pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist associations. Here, its penetrating pizzicato is echoed and reinforced by the clicking of wooden claves, on which some of the players double. Elevated and earthy - the Greek title,inescapably suggests "tragedy", but literally means "goat dance" - the piece unfolds over 20 minutes in short, symetrically placed sections separated by silences. The highly-charged sound-world, pungent, unblended timbres and emphasis upon juxtaposition at the expense of development suggest a debt to Varese and, especially, Stravinsky. (Indeed, much of Birtwistle's output could be understood as a single-minded working out of the implications of the latter's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.) Nonetheless, the result is a real breakthrough - bracingly immediate, fiercely unapologetic and ineluctably mysterious. Apparently, after its first complete performance the composer leapt from his seat and punched the air.


Punch and Judy (1967)

Upon first hearing Tragoedia in my teens, I thought it pungent, arresting and strongly personal, but extremely ugly. Now, although its highly dissonant climax still startles, I find it beautiful. I had a similar experience with his first opera, the one-act Punch and Judy, which builds on the achievement of the earlier piece, and indeed quotes from it. Where much of Birtwistle's later output appeared to stand somewhat aloof from the fashions of its time, Punch and Judy, with its potently stylised Stephen Pruslin libretto, shows clear affinities with the taboo-breaking British theatre of the 60s. (Like Edward Bond's notorious Saved of two years earlier it features the gratuitous murder of a baby.)

The first staging I saw, in the elongated industrial space of London's Drill Hall, emphasised blackness and grotesquerie. It was 1983 and there was more than whiff of punk to the design of David Freeman's production. The audience was squashed right up close to the band - (sitting directly beneath me was Gyorgy Ligeti, scribbling occasional observations on his programme) - which was enthusiastically conducted by (as I remember) Paul Daniel. The onstage performances were entirely admirable, with Marie Angel sensationally acrobatic of both voice and limb in the role of Pretty Poll. As the opening sounds of sustained trumpet and syncopated hi-hat unleashed an orgy of shrieking wind and pounding percussion, augmented by schoolyard whistles, a smart looking young couple in the front row rose to their feet and fled for the exit. They were clearly expecting something more anodyne.

It's true that Benjamin Britten, who commissioned Punch for the Aldeburgh Festival,

also found himself unable to withstand it. At what point he left the first performance and for what reason are somewhat unclear. Legend has it he was shocked and disgusted by the violence of music and scenario, but I doubt this is the whole truth. After all, the young composers whose work he encouraged in his later years - Maxwell Davies, Oliver Knussen, Robert Saxton, Jonathan Harvey, the Matthews Brothers - were all pursuing modernist, if not avant garde agendas. Some have suggested that it was not so much the music itself he found unbearable as the ear-splitting acoustic distortion it suffered as it bounced around the confined space of Aldeburgh's Jubilee Hall. Whatever happened, it appears to have been from this incident that the widespread perception of Birtwistle as a charmless purveyor of brutal cacophony originated.

As I have implied, I myself was mildly repelled by the violent and unyielding nature of much of his early work, even as I admired its force and singularity. My first experience of Punch and Judy was of a wild, scary piece - albeit a dazzling one. A decade later, however, I was to have my view changed by a one-off staging at The Queen Elizabeth Hall. This was a proscenium production directed by Birtwistle himself, and I was seated much further back from sound and action. The design, altogether less stark and minimal, was dominated by a brightly coloured ribbons of a central maypole. Rather than the local cruelties of the scenario, its folkloric and cyclical elements were emphasised and the harshness revealed itself as just one facet of a rich, varied, and essentially lyrical score. Here was English pastoral persuasively remade as a barbed celebration of seasonal renewal, the cycle of birth and death as mechanical straitjacket, enacted by puppets doomed to a life of brutal repetition. Punch's ambiguously presented revolt is both a growth into full consciousness and knowing acceptance of his assigned nature. In the words of the opera's subtitle, both a "tragic comedy" and "comic tragedy".


Verses for Ensembles (1969)

If the great British middle classes have any received impression of Birtwistle at all, it is that of a bearded man without a tie who created a frightful racket on the Last Night of the Proms. The asinine furore whipped up by the tabloid press over the 1995 Albert Hall premiere of Panic - effectively an uninhibited piece of big band jazz - was a mildly depressing demonstration of a Classic FM outlook whereby classical music is perceived as being all very well so long as it is packaged as smooth, relaxing and innocuous. Birtwistle was never any of those. Though not amongst my favourite of his works, Panic is a fine demonstration of a Dionysian side to his nature that he only judiciously indulged - the flipside of the ritualised control.

For me, the most thrilling example of "Dionysiac" Birtwistle comes with his explosive early London Sinfonietta commission - Verses for Ensembles. This eruptive, electrifying, 30 minutes for thirteen wind and percussion players is one of the most physically exciting works of music I know. Not that it is all fire and fury, by any means. There are tense moments of stillness and others where the music is allowed to decay into silence. The form is still fragmentary, but what fragments these are! And what boldness and character in the instrumental writing! I am not aware of Birtwistle ever having expressed any enthusiasm for the music of Janacek, but the strongly gestural and repetitive nature of his own writing, not to mention his fondness for forcing wind instruments to "speak" out of the extremes of their register, suggest a certain affinity with the Czech composer.

Beyond its angry young man swagger, Verses for Ensembles is also confirmation of a changed climate in English music. The year of its composition - 1969 - also saw an series of impressive premieres from Peter Maxwell Davies, including Eight Songs for a Mad King and Worldes Blis. Two northern provincials, neither of privileged background, were both writing music of international stature that was no mere imitation of European models, but had a tough, home-grown character to it. And if it was Maxwell Davies' fluency that dazzled more at the time, Birtwistle's strength of vision was already producing astonishing results.


The Triumph of Time (1972)

Pretty much from the outset of his career, Birtwistle wrote music whose poetic eloquence was overshadowed by a profound sense of - to use the word he himself employed - "melancholia". In modern vernacular usage, the term melancholy carries with it distinctly un-Birtwistlian connotations of self-pity and inertia. We should use it in the sense that it would have been understood by Durer, the Breughel family, and other great Northern Renaissance artists, not to mention Dowland, Campion, and the Elizabethan madrigalists. More a disciplined attitude of mind than a self-indulgent state of emotion.

Birtwistle's first mature work for large orchestra, The Triumph of Time (1972), is as fine an embodiment of this black ekstasis as one could wish for. A vast, unvaryingly slow processional, the piece is inspired by Breughel the Elder's woodcut of Time and Death extending a trail of meaningless devastation across the forefront of a conventional human/pastoral landscape. Although the composer himself invoked Mahler (whose work was provoking cultural hysteria in the early Seventies) as an inspiration, the music entirely dispenses with the neurotic, parodic aspects of Mahler's art. Instead, the listener is presented with "musical objects, unrelated to one another, apart from one's decision to juxtapose them in time and space". As in Breughel's austerely distressing allegorical image, background is not a decorative setting for foreground but proceeds largely independent of it. The two most striking aural objects on display - the long, introverted, cor anglais melody and the desolate three-note cry of the amplified soprano saxophone - cannot be said to evolve, but simply recur against the implacable pile-up of orchestral texture. Massive climaxes do arrive, but their shattering force is somehow absorbed within something unalterable. Time triumphs over the most strenuous human endeavour.

Despite it's severity of theme, The Triumph of Time is one of the most approachable, easily grasped and strongly communicative of all Birtwistle's works, its extraordinary power deriving from a formidable concentration of focus, tone, and technique. Although he often stated that he worked slowly and self-critically, the piece gives the impression of having been somehow conceived whole - a monumental block of towering granitic sound, its aesthetic relating more to sculpture or the visual arts than to the dynamic paradigms that have tended to shape the extended forms of Western music since Beethoven. Its persuasive sense of continuity and cumulative tension marked a solid artistic advance.


Meridian (1971)

The Triumph of Time is the central achievement in what can in retrospect be seen as Birtwistle's most intensely "melancholic" phase. It is surrounded by an impressive series of pieces all too easily lost sight of in its shadow, but equally deserving of attention. These include Nenia: the Death of Orpheus (1970), An Imaginary Landscape (1971), The Fields of Sorrow (1972), Grimethorpe Aria (1973) - possibly the most unsparing music ever written for brass band - and Melancholia I (1976). For me, however, the most inexplicably overlooked major work of this period is Meridian, a potent, defiantly raw setting of romantic/erotic poetry by Christopher Logue, framed by verses of Sir Thomas Wyatt for female voices and small ensemble. A substantial edifice, at near 30 minutes duration, it is surprisingly little performed, though a fine 2014 version by Oliver Knussen is floating around on YouTube. Birtwistle rarely mentioned it in interviews, and Jonathan Cross, in his admirable (if rather randomly organised) study Harrison Birtwistle : Man Mind Music, doesn't mention it at all.

Perhaps both men found its unguarded emotionalism somewhat embarrassing. Some, however, might think it an excellent way into Birtwistle for those who suspect him incapable of embracing conventional lyricism or human emotion. For Meridian is both itself an extended song and an exploration of the nature of song. The music is carried by the bold singing lines of the Mezzo-soprano solo, and those of the concertante 'cello and horn. The odd instrumental lineup - mid-range winds, harps and percussion - is deployed in accompaniment overflowing into surging, forceful interludes. Is it too far fetched to find here, not just a homage to the Elizabethan lute song, but to such pop balladeers as Roy Orbison, for whose upfront style Birtwistle often expressed admiration?

The piece is also a study in musical expressivity, its phrases constantly swelling in crescendo-decrescendo. Treated somewhat in the manner of a "backing group", the small chorus acts almost as the soloist's unconscious, echoing her words and enhancing them with chants, swooping glissandi and a range of vocal and percussion effects.

Quite unlike most avant-garde music of its time in its unapologetic commitment to melody, this had a quite devastating impact upon me when I first heard it at an impressionable age. How I long to hear it live again!


La Plage : 8 Arias of Remembrance (1972)

Yes, Birtwistle's music could be complex - (a fearful sin in the contemporary cultural climate, I know). It could also, sometimes, be simple. Witness this beguiling little cantata for Soprano and five instruments, to a text adapted from an Alain Robbe-Grillet short story. The singer's part is largely confined to a single pitch - middle C - before taking ghostly flight towards the end. Her undemonstrative repeated-note declamations link ruminative instrumental paragraphs for three clarinets, touched off by piano and marimba, both of which have parts so minimal I might be able to have a shot at them myself. The effect is wonderfully strange, uncanny and hilarious - a perfect match for Robbe-Grillet's calculatedly affectless words, with their listless repetitions of the phrase "voila la cloche".

Despite its seemingly cross-Channel orientation, La Plage is also interesting in so far as it betrays - however faintly - an American influence. As a post-graduate at Princeton University in the mid-60s, Birtwistle encountered Cage, Feldman, Lou Harrison and other experimentalists, whose freedom from the dogmas of European modernism - if not always their actual music - made a strong impression. The spirit of Feldman especially, with his restrained dynamics, hermetic introspection and hypnotic treatment of time hovers benignly over this inscrutable evocation of a sunset beach.

I have drawn a surprised blank from even hard-core new music fans by mentioning La Plage, though not from the composer Julian Anderson, who chortled in conspiratorial recognition at our shared enthusiasm for it, before proclaiming it "the best piece Morton Feldman never wrote".


For O, For O, the Hoby-Horse is Forgot (1976)

Birtwistle grew up playing the clarinet in community wind orchestras and his way with wind instruments is deservedly celebrated. Yet he also developed, quite early on, a strikingly distinctive style of writing for percussion. A culmination of his early interest in allowing players a measure of notated freedom, but also one of his most riveting pieces of "secret theatre", For O, For O, the Hoby-Horse is Forgot, is his only work for percussion ensemble and surely a pinnacle of the percussion repertoire.

Arranged in a circle, a group of six players equipped entirely with un-pitched instruments, perform a "ceremony" that builds up from isolated one-note signals into a formidable barrage of overlapping rhythmic patterns, before moving back towards silence. This makes it sound as though we were dealing with something of conventional design and rhetoric, but not so. In many ways, this is the antidote to the unbridled emotionalism of Meridian, growing and receding in density, rather than dynamic. The mainly loud, sharply defined sounds of which the music consists are surrounded by tense, oppressive silences, the effect of which is amplified by the gestures written into the score, whereby the players raise, lower, and cross their sticks.

As you will have gathered, if you did not already know, this is a piece ideally seen, as well as heard - a sort of abstract, wordless mini-opera. The unforgettable title derives from the dumb show scene in Hamlet, which Birtwistle had just written a score for in his role as music director of the National Theatre. It relates to the Oedipal killing of fathers and the rapid fading of their presence in the memory. The two players whose gestures direct operations correspond to King and Queen. I have sometimes wondered if For O - perhaps the bleakest of Birtwistle's extinction ceremonies - isn't a response to Boulez's Rituel, composed a year or two previously. There are certainly similarities in construction, but there is no trace at all of the French composer's exoticism. The final moments, when silence, to paraphrase Andrew Marvel, "crowds itself betwixt" the stark slapping of whips, could only have come from the imagination of one man.

To be continued...

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