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Sir Harrison Birtwistle: 3 Movements with Fanfares

  • for chamber orchestra
  • 1 1 1 1 - 2 2 2 0 - perc, hp, str
  • Duration: 14’
  • Instrumentation details:
    1(+picc) 1 1 1 - 2 2 2 0 - perc, hp, str
  • Composer: Sir Harrison Birtwistle
  • Commission: Commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Musicians for the 1964 City of London Festival

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Work introduction

Birtwistle – 3 Movements with Fanfares

When a composer reaches the age of fifty, there can be no better birthday tribute than the revival of a work, which for some reason or another has been neglected. Birtwistle himself has not heard Three Movements with Fanfares since it was performed in the Guildhall at the 1964 City of London Festival, and is intrigued to know how it stands the test of time. The Worshipful Company of Musicians commissioned it for a concert by the English Chamber Orchestra, but the press were not particularly enthusiastic. One critic said:

Without any apparent striving after effect it achieves a considerable range of textures, paces, moods, but only occasionally (notably in the central slow section) did it generate much sense of impetus or forward movement.

That was characteristic. What impressed them much more was the first performance of Entr'actes and Sappho Fragments, which took place at the Cheltenham Festival three days later. What bowled them over, on the other hand, was the appearance the following year of Ring a Dumb Carillon and Tragoedia in which, for the first time, Birtwistle introduced a regular pulse to set against his irregular additive rhythms, so that his dramatic effects could be timed with precision and the necessary Impetus and forward movement could be achieved.

But, if Three Movements with Fanfares lacks these qualities, their absence should not necessarily be to its detriment. Ring a Dumb Carillon and Tragoedia are preliminary studies for an opera (Punch and Judy), whereas Three Movements with Fanfares aims at something else. Its drama lies in the act of discovery, in the ancient theatrical, device of anagnorisis (recognition). In this respect it closely resembles another neglected work of the period: Chorales for Orchestra. This preceded Three Movements with Fanfares by only a month or two, and can be considered its progenitor. In it Birtwistle exploits early forms of the chorale where the tune is placed in a middle voice and is consequently obscured by the more prominent upper and lower voices around it. As always in Birtwistle's music, the piece is built on a single melodic line or monody which Is not through-composed but compounded of varied repetitions of a handful of notes. Throughout the piece these notes are totally obscured by the mass of proliferations which surround them. The drama consists in gradually teasing them into prominence so that eventually, at the very end of the work, they appear as a chorale: bold, simple and forthright. What has been lost has been discovered, and this moment of recognition constitutes the climax or peripeteia of the work.

It should be noted, however, that it is not only the tune that has been discovered, it is also the very nature of 'chorales'. And so it is with Three Movements with Fanfares, except that here it is not the essential chorale which is sought but the essential fanfare. Usually fanfares are formal flourishes played on bass instruments at some ceremonial event such as a state occasion or a military tattoo. They are never associated with a chamber orchestra even when it is playing in the Guildhall! But Birtwistle likes such incongruities. What interests him is that the word fanfare come from the Spanish fanfarria meaning 'noisy arrogance', and that this, in turn, derives from anfar, the Arabic word for trumpets. As far as he is concerned a fanfare is not a precise, highly disciplined summons, but the boisterous impudence of a pair of trumpets blaring out a raucous challenge at the top of their voices. This is why he structures the piece so that eventually it ends with this gesture.

Formally, the work consists of a short introduction followed by three movements (a fast scherzo, a slow movement and a moderately paced movement) each preceded by a fanfare of a more disciplined nature than the one finally unfolded, but none ceremonial. As in all his music, Birtwistle splits the sections into alternating verse and refrains; the three movements, where prominence is given to solo instruments, being the verses, the three fanfares, the refrains or choruses. Each verse and each refrain goes through the material presented in the introduction in a different way, so that the listener has the impression of looking at the same object from different perspectives. What may be puzzling, however, is the order-in which verse and refrain are placed. Normally a verse is a call which requires the confirming response of the chorus; here, however, response precedes rather than follows the call. Events are not in their usual ordinance. Perhaps Birtwistle felt that fanfares are preparatory gestures and should come first. This would be the obvious explanation, but Birtwistle is a little more subtle than that. The real reason is that he wanted to make the association between anagnorisis and peripeteia (reversal) as close as possible. Aristotle in the Poetics maintained that the “most effective form of discovery is that which is accompanied by reversals, like the one in Oedipus, where the messenger who came to cheer Oedipus and relieve him of his fear about his mother did the very opposite by revealing to him who he really was.” When the last fanfare occurs at the end of the third movement the usual order has been restored by a reversal; the listener discovers the very nature of fanfares and thus all incongruities are resolved.

“There are simple plots and complex plots”, said Aristotle. “Simple plots are single and continuous; complex plots involve discovery and reversal”. Perhaps this present performance will tip the balance to favour this absorbing, dramatically complex work.

Michael Hall

World première

Guildhall , London (GB)
English Chamber Orchestra
John Pritchard

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