Harrison Birtwistle: Reflection | Opera + Classical Music Features

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who died at the age of 87, was prolific across a variety of genres. However, few nights can rival those who have spent watching one of his extraordinary operas. Our book pays homage to his genius by remembering three unforgettable evenings at the opera house, and meditating on what the man and his music meant to them.


Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Photo: Philip Gateward)

Orpheus Mask (English National Opera, May 21, 1986): In 1986 a new production of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera was guaranteed to empty the Opera House, and such was the case with the English National Opera’s premiere. Orpheus mask In the amphitheater cave. It is possible that the audience who participated in the six performances only occupied one show and it was a very long time before the experience was repeated.

I met Birtwistle several times in 2009, first in Bath at a festival for his work and later in Snape, where he was showing new work for the first time. That was before BBC Proms’ amazing performance of the second season of Orpheus mask And while he was pleased (in an angry way) that part of the work was airing again, he regretted the fact that no one wanted to do another full production.

He had to wait until 2019 for that, a 33-year gap since his original launch. ENO should be praised for its revival, but the less talk about Daniel Kramer’s flashy production the better.

If I wasn’t a fan of Birtwistle prior to the premiere in 1986, I certainly would have been from that moment on and took every opportunity to see his operas, including works neglected since then. Yan Tan Tethira and room piece 2009 the passage Among several others.

Respected and skilled, David Freeman (designed by Jocelyn Herbert) produced this complex work with simplicity, clarity, and precision. The ensemble cast included the late great Philip Langridge, Mary Angel, Janice Kelly and the memorably thriving Richard Angas. Elgar Howarth performed the phenomenal score with his usual vigor and the only survivor of the 33-year gap between production, the electronic score generated by IRCAM, was fantastic.

Birtwistle became surrounded by the Orpheus legend and returned to it several times in his career. For me, the outstanding work of producing it entirely is Orpheus mask For its challenging and exhilarating scores and the sheer dramatic excitement of complex and multifaceted texts.

If the work has one defect, it is seriousness that is almost reassuring. The moments of humor won’t be lost in this and other Birtwistle works, but it’s a minor wrench.

I hope it won’t be three decades before London sees it make another play, and another worthy of a respected and lamented English composer. (Simon Thomas)

Gawain (Royal Opera HouseMay 31, 1991): Red Day for British Opera, Royal Opera and Harrison Birtwistle. At the time, the 57-year-old composer’s music was seen as challenging and groundbreaking (in many quarters it still is), so feeling the excitement and dread on the first night of his Royal Opera Commission, GwenIt was tangible. The lobby was buzzing – in fact, looking back, it’s hard to think of a more expected opening than this. It was here for the world premiere before nasty Boy For British classical music at the highest temple of musical arts in the country. If nothing else, it was indicative of Bertwistle’s stature and recognition of his place as one of Britain’s leading contemporary composers. The audience was overwhelmed by the greats and the good of the arts world – Michael Tibbett was present and very enthusiastic, as was the ability audience. When Bertwistle and his book writer, David Harsent, took the House’s call, he erupted in cheers—a reaction that seemed to surprise them, especially given the often cold and startling reaction to many of his earlier works.

It was an exciting evening. I recently graduated in Music from the University of Birmingham, where contemporary music was the dominant discipline today. Having been taught composition by Jonty Harrison and Vic Hoyland, Birtwistle was one of the composers who was widely featured in those lessons. Yes, I found some of his compositions difficult to resolve, but it really got under my skin. for me Gwen It was the embodiment of everything I thought a musical drama should be. The story is told clearly and imaginatively, with strong and original music. When the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed a semi-stage in 2014 at the Barbican, some 23 years later, it was wonderful to hear such a miraculous result again, and the relief that its profound strength and capacity to shock had not diminished in the intervening years.

That May night in Covent Garden, 30 years ago, remains one of the most important and transformative nights I’ve ever had at the opera. An audio recording from that first run is available on Spotify, while a video recording is in the BBC’s vaults. Let’s hope it’s now re-released or made available to stream on The Royal Opera House, as I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Harrison Birtwistle – a music giant. His death is an incalculable loss to the artistic life and spirit of this country, but we should be thankful for the rich musical legacy he left behind. (Keith McDonnell)

Minotaur (Royal Opera, April 15, 2008): The music at the last Birtwistle opera, which premiered on the main stage at the Royal Opera House, may have sounded favourably, or poorly, compared to either one. Orpheus or Gwen. However, the brilliance Minotaur It lies in being a well-balanced, well-rounded piece that epitomizes the composer’s versatility in tempering the spiky with the zigzag. However, it was still impossible to argue that the score was lacking in strength, especially since the percussion, which was set at both ends of the circle of stalls just above the hole, created a virtual stereo sound that made the audience feel so good at the center of the action.

The opera’s brilliance derives not only from its music, but also from its well-chosen subject matter. Based on the ancient Greek myth, Minotaur He describes the attempts of the Athenian Theseus to kill the half-man, half-ox, who resides in the center of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, and feeds the Athenians as compensation for the death of King Minos’ son. This means that we have a hero (Theseus) and a shadow (Minotaur) cut from the same cloth, as it turns out that they share the same father. Likewise, both the Minotaur and his sister, Ariadne, longed to escape, only one from the Labyrinth and the other from Crete. Above all, at the heart of the story lies an “antagonist” for whom we can’t help but feel sympathy when we learn how he was born into a dark and brutal life. In fact, this was what created his passion for meat as he found that he could not allow anything beautiful and innocent to live.

One can only assume that Birtwistle worked so closely with director Stephen Langridge and designer Alison Chetty, for example, that the projected image of solid-looking waves was the perfect complement to music that felt quaint rather than downright stormy. Likewise, although the production was high on drama, considering how bloody the subject matter was, it had an understated quality. When the Minotaur killed the Athenians, they scraped themselves red when they fell, leading to a degree of determination for what would have been a very chaotic bloodbath. At the same time, the procedure was taken to feel psychologically strong. Watching these innocents fall, we felt as if we might finally have a moment of peace (even Ariadne sang just as much), but suddenly the Keres family rushed to rip out the hearts of the victims, as their carefully designed wings created an unsettling noise. on the stage.

Actors include Kristen Rice as Ariadne, Johann Reuter as Theseus, Andrew Watts as Priestess of the Snake, and Philip Langridge as Priestess accompanying Herios. However, in the middle of the evening, John Tomlinson, whom Birtwistle specifically wrote for the title role, stood up. The part certainly places unusual vocal demands on the performer, because in front of people the Minotaur cannot express words. However, Tomlinson’s voice was safe and persuasive when he snarled and howled more than when he was solo in his dreams. It was a pleasure to see a composer so attuned to the unique strengths of a particular singer, including this person’s outstanding acting skills, creating a role in which Tomlinson could be truly overwhelming. (Sam Smith)

Grown up with Birtwistle (1986 – present): It was my A-level music teacher who introduced me to Birtwistle, when I was about sixteen or seventeen. must be Earth dances, because I remember him pulling off this massive score for the global version, whose size and scale indicate something truly massive, and showing me how Birtwistle moved his music from one orchestral class to the next. Since then, Birtwistle has strangely permeated my life – my first review of this site was an English National Opera Orpheus mask – and he’s never gone away (until now, I think). Even more bizarre was the encounter of the same man at the French house in Soho over a friend’s deer a few years earlier.

Harrison Birtwistle once used the metaphor of wandering around a medieval Italian town to describe the experience of his music: peeking at its monuments and squares from new and slanting angles, obscured in shade or drenched in sunlight, distorted and restored by the forces of time and space. This is deeply felt in his work on the trumpet and the strings endless parade And the winding labyrinth corridors silbury airwhere we suddenly turn around and find ourselves at a set of tracks announced by the bass drum.

Birtwistle uses the visceral hieratic rituals of Greek drama to generate compelling musical scenes. at secret theater (1984) Instrumentals transition from platform solo (‘cantus’) to chorus (‘continuity’), an abstract drama of musical roleplay. at panic For the brass, the wind, the percussion, the solo sax, and the drum set, which infamously frightened the horses in 1995 on the last night of the balls, the two soloists ran away from the prevailing wind chorus and brass with their percussion and improvisations. At one point, a drum kit with a riotous quartet escapes from a trombone. “What was he doing, Great God Pan?” , asks Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem in the opening pages of the composition, to “spread havoc and scatter prohibition.”

Sometimes it’s the music that moves with the slowest logic. The sense of uncompromising vitality – with a kind of primal gloom – his orchestral work time victoryInspired by a woodcut by Bruegel. His masterpiece in 1986 Earth dances – The piece that makes spring rite It looks like Delius – it works through different “layers”. The bundles of material move up and down, carried by woodwinds, as if through geological layers – clay, sandstone, clay, greenish topsoil, varied textures and many viscosities. It sounds astonishingly complex, but Birtwistle’s music anchors our ears somewhat through the piece’s simplest melodic gestures – a minor third, revolving around a D and F. This is music that never settles, even if its slow, prehistoric movement. If a cliff face could sing, it would be his song Earth dances.

A conversation with conductor Martin Brabbins begins with fruit picking in his Wiltshire garden – a cool pastoral that epitomizes the lyricism of the windswept Bertwistle. He was a funny, though sarcastic, terse, nonsense man. “We’re not really here to talk about fruits and vegetables,” Brabbins says, sitting on a quince platter. Birtwistle “More interesting, but don’t bother.” It’s music like food, in some ways: you smell it and feel it before you have time to think about it. (Benjamin Burr)

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