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Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Meridian

  • for mezzo-soprano, 2 female choirs and instruments
  • 0 3 3 0 - 1 0 0 0 - perc(2), hp(2), pno, vc(1)
  • Duration: 27’
  • Soloists:
  • Instrumentation details:
    3 ob (+ c.a), 3 cl(Bb) (+ bass cl) - hr - perc(2), 2 hp, pno, vc(1)
  • Choir: SSS SSS (leicht verstärkt)
  • Composer: Sir Harrison Birtwistle
  • Text author: Christopher LogueThomas Wyatt
  • Commission: Commissioned by the London Sinfonietta

Work introduction

Meridian is a love song; it is also, secondarily, “about” the nature of song and of creative activity.

The “song” part is a setting of one of Christopher Logue's 13 Love Songs (from Wand and Quadrant, the collection from which Birtwistle took the text for Ring a Dumb Carillon which he wrote immediately before Tragoedia). The poem is fiercely sexual though expressed in terms of nature imagery (i.e. flora, not fauna).

The “about song/creativity” is taken from the two first verses of two poems of Thomas Wyatt: “My lute awake / perform the last / Labour that you and I shall waste . . .” and “Blame not my lute for he must sound / Of this or that as liketh me . . .” (to which one should add a significant line from the Logue: “The song is lie or nonsense”, which could come from the Punch and Judy libretto).

The unset Wyatt verses are also love songs, with a strong flavour of melancholic acceptance which is implicit in the “mood” of the music of Meridian.

Externally Meridian is in “song form”, though with the weight shifted towards the centre, the extended setting of the Logue. The Wyatt verses are confined to the Introduction and (for want of a better word) Extroduction.

Internally the form is conceived instrumentally, that is the instrumental continuum shapes the song (and not vice-versa).

The instruments, apart from the horn and violoncello, are used as timbral groups, rather than as individuals: two three-part soprano choirs, piano and two percussion, two harps, three cors anglais and three bass clarinets. (Two works are preparatory to Meridian: Dinah's and Nick's Love Song for three cors anglais and harp, and The Death of Orpheus, for voice, three bass clarinets, percussion and piano inside.) The instrumental ensembles are not used in the self-contained, hard-edge manner of Verses for Ensembles, and to a lesser extent Tragoedia, but as interlocking groups which radiate outwards from the voice in different ways. For instance the choirs articulate words, sing percussively, play percussion instruments (cf. the claves in Tragoedia) and act as a wordless backing group.

The solo horn and solo violoncello are direct engineers of musical progress, their individual conflict partly activates the form but in a less disruptive way than in Tragoedia. The two solo instruments (male/female?) are initially as one, unified on an E which is the ground of the whole work, and which returns at the end. Just before the first entry of the mezzo-soprano, with the second of the two Wyatt verses ('Blame not my lute') the horn begins to show its superiority, which it only achieves fully after the first verse of the song proper. During the first instrumental episode the horn dominates, joining the mezzo-soprano as an equal during the second verse. In the second instrumental section horn and violoncello play in rhythmic unison, the violoncello finally asserting itself and playing along with the voice in the third verse. (The breaking away by the violoncello precisely parallels the situation in the Anapaest of Episodion I of Tragoedia and is a direct quote from it). The horn takes over the fourth verse but the two soloists are together again during the Extroduction.

Michael Nyman


World première

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London (GB)
London Sinfonietta
David Atherton
Main soloists:
Yvonne Minron, Barry Tuckwell, Jennifer Ward-Clarke

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