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Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Melencolia I

  • for clarinet, harp and 2 string orchestras
  • hp, str.orch 1(15 0 6 6 4), str.orch 2(15 0 6 6 4)
  • Duration: 24’
  • Soloists:
    clarinet in A
  • Instrumentation details:
    string orchestra 1: violin (15)
    viola (6)
    violoncello (6)
    contrabass (4)
    string orchestra 2: violin (15)
    viola (6)
    violoncello (6)
    contrabass (4)
  • Composer: Sir Harrison Birtwistle
  • Dedication: Dedicated to the memory of Tony Wright (of Universal Edition)
  • Commission: Commissioned for Musica Nova 1976 by the Scottish National Orchestra Society
  • Remarks: "Melencolia I" by Albrecht Dürer

Work introduction

The title refers to Dürer’s eponymous engraving; Birtwistle’s music is introverted, indeed melancholy, using the most frugal of resources. The tempo is consistently slow; in the first part, the clarinet sings a mournful melody or advances in small steps, accompanied by brief accents from the harp (which Birtwistle seems to treat like a percussion instrument at times), shrouded by the two string orchestras.

The clarinet becomes more active in the second part, its leaps large, almost hysterical, amongst the menacing sounds from the string orchestras; their two, extremely short outbursts have the effect of earthquakes. The clarinet’s only rapid passage occurs in the work’s cadenza, before harp chords bring the piece to its close.


World première

Glasgow (GB)
Scottish National Orchestra
Gibson Alexander
Main soloists:
Hacker Alan, clar

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