I conceived The Shadow of Night as a companion piece to Earth Dances, also in the repertoire of the Cleveland Orchestra. Yet whereas the 1985 work is rhythmically energetic, its structures quite Cubist, The Shadow of Night is a mirror image - a slow and reflective nocturne, exploring the world of melancholy as understood and celebrated by Elizabethan poets and composers.
The title is drawn from a long poem by George Chapman (1559-1634), which is one of the fullest explorations of this theme, where melancholy is no longer an inert and depressive mood, but a humour of the night, an inspired spiritual condition.
I took inspiration from two dark sources - the expressions of melancholy in Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melencolia I (1514) and John Dowland's lute song In Darkness Let Me Dwell, the first three notes of which are quoted in the piccolo's solo soon after the opening of the piece. This motif, which rises a semitone and down again, is woven into the fabric of the work and also alluded to figuratively: lines split and later reunite, the notes of a chord move away and back again, and longer melodic lines are interrupted and resumed like the moon shining through a series of slowly passing clouds.
Harrison Birtwistle, 2003
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer
"Birtwistle's most impressive orchestral canvas to date... a powerfully concentrated 30-minute arc with a slow-burn, cumulative effect, capturing the listener with a multiplicity of open melody and intricately developed power of suggestion…an unsurpassed balance of form and content... Birtwistle comes across as an old master."
"…the nature of melancholy is explored in music of hallucinatory audacity…In conceiving the work, Birtwistle drew inspiration from two dark sources: John Dowland’s song, In Darkness Let Me Dwell, and Melancolia I, an engraving by Albrecht Dürer. These references inform The Shadow of Night in ways that are often elusive, which is as things should be: they are starting points for a composer who has always taken his own path."
Cleveland Plain Dealer