Harrison Birtwistleb. 1934
An introduction to Harrison Birtwistle’s music by Jonathan Cross
Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic – his noisy, jazzy ‘concerto’ for solo saxophone and percussion – received its controversial premiere at the 1995 Last Night of the Proms, watched and heard by millions around the world. While the hard-edged and forcefully extrovert character of the piece may have offended those who like their music to comfort rather than confront, for those prepared to listen, it suggested a man unwilling to compromise his art. Here was a composer in total command of his creative skills, who chose to say what he wanted to say in as direct a manner as possible. It is this very combination of single-minded creative vision and virtuosity that has attracted performers and listeners in many countries to the music of Birtwistle.
Back in 1975 Meirion Bowen, in terms borrowed from Isaiah Berlin, described Birtwistle as ‘the hedgehog [who] knows one big thing’, and in 1999 the composer himself observed that ‘There are no choices any more: I know exactly where I want to go…’ His is a unique and distinctive music, and though its surface is now quite different from that of the scores of his first maturity, at a deeper level the music has hardly changed at all. The verse-refrain structures of his first published work, Refrains and Choruses, can still be heard in Pulse Shadows; his pre-occupation with reinventing mythical narratives in Punch and Judy and The Mask of Orpheus is still clearly evident in The Last Supper; his love of abstract ritual in Tragoedia is still present in The Cry of Anubis; his assured command of the elemental power of the orchestra in The Triumph of Time is still a central aspect of The Shadow of Night; his fascination with time itself in Chronometer is still in operation in Harrison’s Clocks.
Birtwistle’s music can be bold, violent and primitive, as much in the recent Panic as in classic scores of the 1960s such as Verses for Ensembles; it can also be soft, lyrical and contemplative, as in the Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker as well as in earlier works such as Linoi. Often the two modes complement one another in the same work to produce an intensely expressive result – The Woman and the Hare, in the composer’s words, is intended to be ‘both delicate and violent’. Above all, Birtwistle is a man of the theatre and a strong sense of drama infuses all his works. His skills were honed during his time as Musical Director at the National Theatre, culminating in the music for Peter Hall’s acclaimed production of Aeschylus’s ancient trilogy, The Oresteia. This music – rhythmically highly charged but held together by long, lamenting instrumental lines – serves text and drama perfectly, creating an appropriately tragic atmosphere, a music that is simultaneously ancient and contemporary. The same is true of Birtwistle’s monumental works for the opera house – The Mask of Orpheus, Gawain, The Last Supper – where an operatic legacy of arias and recitatives is transformed into mythical music-dramas of epic proportions.
His music sings sad laments; it dances joyous celebrations. It can be tragic; it can be celebratory. It never stands still: each new work sur-prises in delightful ways; each new work challenges the listener in exciting ways. While its roots lie in the work of key European modernists – Stravinsky pre-eminent among them – Birtwistle’s music is able to speak to the twenty-first century in an original voice. His unique balancing of the primordial and the rational, of the universal and the particular, of the old and the new, produces a music that both confronts and comforts because it is able to represent real human emotions in rich and stimulating ways.
Jonathan Cross, 2002
(Lecturer, Music Faculty, Oxford University; author of Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music [Faber & Faber/Cornell University Press] and The Stravinsky Legacy [Cambridge University Press].)