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Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Nomos

  • for 4 amplified instruments and orchestra
  • 4 3 3 3 - 4 4 3 1 - timp, perc(6), hp, cel, vla(10), vc(10), cb(8)
  • Duration: 15’
  • Soloists:
  • Instrumentation details:
    4 fl (2., 3., 4. also picc), 3 ob (3. also c.a), 3 Kl (2. also cl(Eb), 3. also cl(Eb) and bass cl), 3 bs (3. also cbsn), 4 hr, 4 tpt(Bb), 3 tbn, tuba, timp, perc(6), hp, cel, vla(10), vc(10), cb(8)
  • Composer: Sir Harrison Birtwistle
  • Commission: Commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation for the Promenade Concerts 1968

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Work introduction

Nomos, written between September 1967 and April 1968, when the composer was resident in the USA, is part of a group of Birtwistle's works that reflects certain formal aspects of Ancient Greek music and theatre.

The title refers to two meanings of the word nomos: generally, in its literal sense of law, order; and specifically, as the term given to the musical formulae or stereotypes from which the chants of Greek epics were formed. Thus the continuous cantus firmus of the amplified wind quartet orders both the macrostructure – defining the overall form – and the microstructure – as source for the derivation of the “formulae” of the other three instrumental groups – large wind-band, percussion ensemble and strings without violins.

This basic material is cast in the form of self-contained blocks whose disposition obeys the basic “law” of Nomos – that of expansion, expressed by the gradual growth in complexity of the amplified instruments which take complete control in the final section. The blocks are constantly[-]recurrent, separated by non-recurrent interruptions, and are expanded by means of superimposition and juxtaposition, rhythmic and melodic mutation, horizontal and vertical elaboration and, paradoxically, by concentration and diminution.

The more important and recognisable of the block-formulae are listed below, with a guide to their expanded forms:

i. chord of (B)-C-Db-G, rhythmically articulated, mainly lower strings and wind;
ii. “rallentando canon” for two horns, later six-part brass, and derivatively as a series of linked duets for oboes or trumpets;
iii. accelerando sequence of three-note chords (cf i) for harp and celesta, later with other pitched percussion;
IV. bassoon solo with two oboes, expanded on three bassoons with oboes;
v. five-part slow triplet chords, woodwind and strings; subsequently brass;
vi. extended decorated monody, for wind quartet, at first elaborating the long notes of the amplified quartet, to which it is finally transferred;
vii. descending passage in rhythmic unison, wind quartet, later combined with itself and vi. for three separate interlinked quartets;
viii. punctuating wind chord-complexes;
ix. three-note chord (cf i) for high woodwind or trumpets, both sustained and broken-up rhythmically with a fourth melodic part.

However, Nomos is not “definitive” – it is rather a fragment of a more extended epic, whose beginning we don't know and which continues long after the amplified instruments stop playing.

Michael Nyman


World première

Royal Albert Hall, London (GB)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Colin Davis

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