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Sir Harrison Birtwistle obituary | Classical music


Harrison Birtwistle, who has died aged 87, was that stunning factor, a deeply English composer who was additionally internationally famend as a fantastic modernist.

His modernism was of a really explicit sort, rooted within the primordial formal components of music and ritualised theatrical gesture. This provides it an air of being concurrently trendy and historic. Like that of so many English composers earlier than him, Birtwistle’s music usually looks like a sluggish traversal of a panorama – usually a particularly English panorama. And, maybe most vital, fantasy (usually Greek however at instances English) is the music’s pure atmosphere.

This made Birtwistle – or Harri, as he was referred to as by those that knew him – stand aside from the European modernists, who tended to be systematisers with a eager and troubled consciousness of historical past arising from the latest previous. The destructive flip of German contemporaries equivalent to Helmut Lachenmann, whose musical statements are an anguished demonstration of the problem of constructing statements, was totally overseas to him.

For Birtwistle, the thriller of music was a optimistic thriller; it might be conjured via a mixture of iron will and arduous work. That perception reveals itself within the music, which has a cussed energy, a way of pushing and overcoming each impediment, which is exclusive. One of Birtwistle’s staunchest admirers, Pierre Boulez, summed up this high quality when he stated: “Birtwistle’s music has a great power to convince.”

That sense of conviction is partly a matter of rhetoric. Birtwistle’s music makes huge gestures of a stony sort. Even when the music is quiet, it appears someway huge. But the conviction can be born out of the way in which the music works. The items usually start by setting out a set of premises, usually of the best sort – a pulse, a single pitch, a small circling determine. From this one thing massively advanced grows, with an inevitability straightforward to really feel however arduous to analyse. Things unfold with affected person slowness, like a river flowing, or the expansion of a glacier.

Peter Hoare, as Orpheus the Man, and Alfa Marks, as Eurydice the Hero, in the 2019 English National Opera production of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus.
Peter Hoare, as Orpheus the Man, and Alfa Marks, as Eurydice the Hero, within the 2019 English National Opera manufacturing of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

If there was a second when Birtwistle’s musical imaginative and prescient crystallised, it was absolutely the day in August 1965 when his Tragoedia, for 10 devices, was premiered on the Wardour Castle summer season college in Wiltshire (which he had co-founded the earlier yr). Eye-witnesses stated that on the finish Birtwistle jumped up and punched the air in triumph. And rightly so, as a result of Tragoedia was an astounding achievement.

It hurls itself on the listener in a sequence of sharply contrasted musical blocks, organized in an ingenious cyclic sample modelled on the formal divisions of the Greek choric ode. The music builds an enormous stress, discharged by a plunging sluggish gesture on the harp that is without doubt one of the nice endings in music. The music of Trageodia is repeated note-for-note in Birtwistle’s first opera, Punch and Judy, premiered on the Aldeburgh competition in 1968, allied to the acquainted story of ritualised cruelty, and musically augmented to supply a fancy sequence of greater than 100 quick “numbers”.

To hear these two items now’s to pay attention to simply how far Birtwistle travelled within the inventive profession of greater than half a century that adopted. The elementary change on this span was a transfer away from sharply outlined blocks separated by silences to a dense continuity, made up of distinct layers or strata, every with its personal tempo and character. If one needed to identify the important thing date within the emergence of Birtwistle’s “new” type it could be 21 May 1986, the premiere of his opera The Mask of Orpheus at English National Opera.

This opera, which was at the least 15 years within the making, was described to me by Birtwistle proudly as “perhaps the most complex work of art ever made”. It is scored for an enormous orchestra, which incorporates keening soprano saxophones and a specifically invented deep bass drum. Between the scenes are danced Allegories accompanied by immensely highly effective digital music for which a lot of the credit score should go to Barry Anderson, Birtwistle’s co-worker on the Parisian digital studio IRCAM the place these interludes had been created.

The story of Orpheus’s thwarted marriage to Eurydice, his pursuit of her to the Underworld, and his personal violent demise are enacted in a formalised manner during which actions are repeated, every time from a distinct perspective, and every character seems in three totally different incarnations: as a human being, a Hero and a Myth (represented by an enormous puppet). It is undoubtedly Birtwistle’s most bold work, and it price him a superhuman effort. Thankfully the prediction of 1 critic that it was a “beached whale” of an opera and would by no means be produced once more has turned out to be unfaithful; it was given a brand new manufacturing at ENO in 2019, directed by Daniel Kramer.

Entering into this second part gave Birtwistle a brand new fluency. Having been a sluggish and unsure composer he went on to supply an impressively massive work-list, although he all the time insisted that doubt and “creative blocks” had been his fixed companions, and that none of his works ever turned out fairly how he wished. This sense of unreachable thriller might partly account for the darkish, meditative high quality of a lot of his music.

The Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne performed by Markus Stenz in a 2010 efficiency of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances (1986)

Birtwistle might pretty be described as the good hymner of melancholy amongst postwar composers, and he liked the custom of melancholy in European tradition. Dowland’s tune In Darkness Let Me Dwell was the inspiration for The Shadow of Night (2001) and Dürer’s etching Melencolia I lay behind Melencolia I (1976) and Night’s Black Bird (2004). This pressure usually emerged within the quite a few units of songs for feminine voice and some devices dotted via his catalogue because the Nineteen Eighties, based mostly on poets as different as Rilke, Lorine Niedecker, Paul Celan and Robin Blaser who was additionally the librettist of Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper (1999).

Many listeners heat most to this quiet, usually miniature-scale Birtwistle, however there isn’t a denying the sheer energy of the opposite Birtwistle, embodied in such works as The Minotaur (2008), which embodies the terrifying energy of the beast in its big clangorous, brass-drenched sounds, and the orchestral masterpiece Earth Dances (1986), usually described as a “latter-day Rite of Spring”. Yet at backside they share the identical formal processes, the identical tendency to channel sturdy, even violent, emotions into a decent framework.

They even have an expressive kinship. Even essentially the most violent of Birtwistle’s works can have quiet, tender moments, and the quieter items are by no means wholly quiet. Perhaps essentially the most evident hyperlink is the significance, in each the meditative and orgiastically violent works, of the notion of interruption. Even the gentlest of his songs have a small disaster sooner or later, a brand new overseas component that causes a disturbance.

The impact is ambiguous; the disturbance is assuaged, made to look regular, however it additionally adjustments the music’s course. Fatefulness and accident come collectively, a high quality proven vividly in Ritual Fragments, a bit written in 1990 in reminiscence of Michael Vyner, one-time creative director of the London Sinfonietta. The ensemble as a complete expresses a slowly pacing ritual; inside this body, every instrument pays its personal homage in flip, in an outcry that each affirms the music’s ritual nature but additionally interrupts and transforms it.

John Tomlinson within the title position of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, on the Royal Opera House, 2008.

Although one can really feel the affect of different modernists on Birtwistle, above all of the ritualistic facet of Stravinsky, the peculiar mix of violence, melancholy and aloof formalism is all his personal. This absolutely owes a lot to his early experiences as a boy within the north of England, the place his uncommon creativeness made him an outsider from the start.

Born in Accrington, Lancashire, Harri was the one son of Madge (nee Harrison) and Fred Birtwistle. His dad and mom labored within the household bakery enterprise, later buying a smallholding. Birtwistle remembered his first pair of sneakers had been truly clogs. He took up the clarinet and performed it within the North East Lancashire army band.

However, his most important childhood reminiscence was of the encircling countryside, the place he would roam for hours. Its rugged integrity was ruptured by the arrival of an immense energy station, which the younger Birtwistle deeply resented as an intrusion on his idyllic existence. This absolutely lies behind the thought of a “continuity which has been fractured”, a phrase Birtwistle used half a century later when requested to seize the essence of his music.

In 1952, on the age of 18, Birtwistle gained a scholarship from Accrington grammar college to the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), the place he studied clarinet and composition. Alongside him had been the opposite members of what would grow to be often known as the Manchester School: the pianist John Ogdon, the trumpeter Elgar Howarth (who as a conductor later turned one among Birtwistle’s favorite interpreters), and the composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr. While Goehr and Maxwell Davies leapt forward with wonderful confidence, Birtwistle appears to have stored his composing ambitions roughly secret; everybody considered him as a clarinettist.

But like them, he was fired up by the avant-garde music filtering into Britain from Europe, and like them he was too independently minded to grow to be a Boulez or Stockhausen epigone. His “Opus 1”, Refrains and Choruses for wind quintet, accomplished in 1957 after the two-year hiatus of nationwide service, already reveals clear indicators of the mature Birtwistle in its formalised verse-and-refrain sample and its fondness for a lean, wind-dominated sound.

Harrison Birtwistle in 1973. By then he had completed his first big orchestral work, The Triumph of Time (1971-72).
Harrison Birtwistle in 1973. By then he had accomplished his first huge orchestral work, The Triumph of Time (1971-72). Photograph: David Newell Smith/The Observer

In 1965 he bought his clarinets, a symbolic declaration of intent to be a composer, and gave up his educating job at Cranborne Chase college in Wiltshire to take up a Harkness fellowship within the US. There he accomplished Tragoedia, and later the opera based mostly on it, Punch and Judy. This and the shatteringly loud, rigidly block-like Verses for Ensembles (1968-69) confirmed his status as Britain’s most radical composer, alongside Maxwell Davies.

But financially this was essentially the most precarious interval of Birtwistle’s life. Birtwistle’s dedication to compose full-time precipitated nice hardship for his spouse, Sheila Duff, a gifted singer who earlier than their marriage in 1958 had a different profession, and his burgeoning household. For some time they lived in an remoted cottage on the Scottish island of Raasay, the place they might afford to warmth just one room.

Things turned simpler from 1973, when Birtwistle gained two short-term educating posts within the US. By then he had already accomplished his first huge orchestral work, The Triumph of Time (1971-72), partly impressed by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s eponymous engraving. Birtwistle’s second opera, The Mask of Orpheus, had by now already been commissioned by Covent Garden, however it could be 16 years earlier than it lastly reached the stage, in 1986, by which era the fee had moved to ENO.

In the meantime, Birtwistle had been invited by Peter Hall to work as director of music after which affiliate director on the National Theatre (1975-88). The expertise of working with Hall on Tony Harrison’s new translation of The Oresteia (1981) was decisive in formulating the theatrical language of Birtwistle’s opera.

In 1986, the identical yr because the premiere of Orpheus, Birtwistle was the topic of a Channel 4 tv documentary, Behind the Mask. He had now definitively arrived, each when it comes to standing and musically, within the sense that his music had entered right into a “late style” that it could preserve for the remainder of his inventive profession. Birtwistle went on within the following 20 years to write down 4 extra full-length operas and several other small-scale music-theatre items.

Gawain, based mostly on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and premiered in 1991, is the apogee of Birtwistle’s fondness for English people tales. Here his obsession with cycles and symmetries remains to be uppermost. The key actions of beheading and seduction happen twice, and on the mid-point there’s a huge cyclic episode portraying the turning of the seasons. But the expansion in self-knowledge of the primary character reveals a brand new willingness to confess narrative into his theatre.

Rehearsals for the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s piano concerto Responses by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, 2014

The pattern continued in The Second Mrs Kong, first seen at Glyndebourne in 1994, a component mythic, half city fantasy in regards to the “spirit of Kong”, now marooned in an underworld peopled by grotesques, and his quest for his beloved Pearl (the Girl with the Pearl Earring immortalised by Vermeer). The opera even has moments of farce, not a temper one ever anticipated to search out in Birtwistle. The Last Supper (Staatsoper Berlin, 2000) imagines Christ and his disciples gathered collectively in our personal time, to re-enact the supper and the washing of the toes after “two millennia of bestiality and vileness”.

Impressive although these works are, it’s arduous to not really feel that Birtwistle’s genius is usually obscured by the moralising and narrative superstructure. His theatre is most riveting the place it’s latent, as in Theseus Game for ensemble and two conductors, premiered in 2003. And his engagement with texts is most persuasive within the small confines of tune settings, as in Pulse Shadows (1989-96), settings of 9 poems by Celan interleaved with 9 actions for string quartet – absolutely the masterpiece of Birtwistle’s later years.

At the alternative pole to the gnomic profundity of those songs is the thrillingly virtuosic Harrison’s Clocks (1997-98) written for the pianist Joanna MacGregor, a set of ticking, whirring musical mechanisms impressed by John Harrison, the inventor of a mechanism that may preserve exact time at sea.

In his later years, spent (from 1992 onwards) in a transformed silk manufacturing facility in Wiltshire, the works continued to return thick and quick. Honours and appointments arrived: a knighthood in 1988, the Grawemeyer award in 1989, the primary Henry Purcell professorship of composition at Kings College London, from 1994 to 2001, the Siemens prize in 1995. His eightieth birthday yr prompted a number of retrospective sequence and a burst of latest works, together with the piano concerto Responses: Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless, premiered in London on the Southbank Centre by Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the London Philharmonic performed by Vladimir Jurowski.

Though there have been no extra operas on the size of The Minotaur, Birtwistle composed a number of extra chamber-sized music-theatre items, together with two based mostly on texts by his closest collaborator, the poet David Harsent: The Corridor (2008) and The Cure (2015). Though his creativity remained undimmed, Birtwistle’s later years had been overshadowed by the rising ill-health of Sheila, who suffered from Parkinson’s illness.

He cultivated a deliberate curmudgeonliness, which turned extra pronounced as his eminence elevated. “I’m not establishment,” he would growl. “People think I am, but I’m not.” In 1995 he had an opportunity to show that when he was invited to write down a bit for the Last Night of the Proms, and produced a saxophone concerto of blistering violence entitled Panic, which precipitated widespread offence.

Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic on the Last Night of the Proms, 1995

Birtwistle’s growliness typically took on a scornful tone, and he was not all the time sort in his angle to youthful composers. But he might be a captivating host too, displaying guests around the sunken backyard of his dwelling in Wiltshire, speaking in regards to the difficulties of breeding turtles, enthusing over his much-thumbed volumes of Pevsner or books on the symbolism of the Green Man. As Hall remarked, one among Birtwistle’s nice strengths was his naivety. In dialog he was as prone to seek advice from The Wind within the Willows as Paul Klee or the diagrams in D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form (two different profound influences on him).

He by no means misplaced his fascination with the best components of musical type, a fascination all the time expressed in an empirical manner. Birtwistle was by no means a scientific or theorising composer, which is a part of what makes him very English; that and the sheer sound of the music, with its slowly unfolding landscapes, its eruptive bawdiness, its modal, antique-sounding lyricism. Yeats as soon as described the English thoughts as “meditative, rich, deliberate”; it could be arduous to discover a higher description of the music of Birtwistle.

Sheila died in 2012. Birtwistle is survived by their sons, Adam, Silas and Toby.

Harrison Birtwistle, composer, born 15 July 1934; died 18 April 2022



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