Universal Edition - Sir Harrison Birtwistle – About the Music

Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Birtwistle

About the Music

The anecdote may be apocryphal but it has a symbolic value: the world premiere of Punch and Judy, Harrison Birtwistle’s “tragical comedy or comical tragedy”, on 8 June 1968 in Aldeburgh, was attended by Benjamin Britten. Apparently, at one point, Britten could not bear it any longer and left his box before the performance ended. Twenty-one years lie between the births of the two composers – not quite a generation but enough to make them representatives of two wholly different worlds. The older composer just could not find access to that of his younger colleague.

Britten and Birtwistle have one thing in common: unlike some of their compatriots, both have made it across the Channel and have gained wide acceptance on the Continent, indeed also in the United States. 

Birtwistle has never made it easy for his listeners. His music is uncompromising in its complexity and its often abrasive harmonies. It has a primeval power, a relentless drive which time and again sounds like a slow procession. In some of his compositions, Birtwistle draws his inspiration from myths, such as in his opera Gawain or his ensemble work Silbury Air.

With regard to his music theatre pieces of which Universal Edition also publishes the monumental The Mask of Orpheus and the comic The Second Mrs Kong in addition to works on a smaller scale, his biographer Michael Hall has expressed the view that “No other living composer can match his extraordinary theatrical flair. It informs not only his operas but just about everything he composes from major orchestral works such as The Triumph of Time, Earth Dances and Exody  (Boosey & Hawkes) to chamber music such as Pulse Shadows (UE and B&H) and even miniature piano pieces.”

Birtwistle has composed a wide range of works for chamber ensemble, both for The Pierrot Players which he founded together with Peter Maxwell Davies (the two of them, with Alexander Goehr, were known as the Manchester Group of Composers, having studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, now the Royal Northern College of Music there) and for The London Sinfonietta.

These compositions have gained a foothold in the repertoire of ensembles all over the world. Here are a few titles: Tragoedia, Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments, Verses for Ensembles, Secret Theatre, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, Silbury Air …

Sir Harrison (he was knighted in 1988) has also written some poetry which he then proceeded to set to music. Here are the first two lines of Songs by Myself:

O light set a flame in amber, and freeze
the rose’s pulse.

Images of remarkable beauty, of genuine poetry. The composer has admitted that he feels closer to artists than to musicians and indeed is known to have produced some pictures of great originality.  It is perhaps true to say that those endowed with creativity have various channels at their disposal through which they can express themselves. For Birtwistle, music is obviously his primary vent but like Ligeti or like Rihm he is equally at home in other fields of creativity as well.