Sir Harrison Birtwistle: On the Sheer Threshold of the Night

Sir Harrison Birtwistle On the Sheer Threshold of the Night
On the Sheer Threshold of the Night

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: On the Sheer Threshold of the Night

Year of composition:
Scored for:
for 4 soli and 12 voice choir
Sir Harrison Birtwistle
Text author:
Original language:
Helen Waddell
3S, 3A, 3T, 3B
soprano; alto; tenor; bass
Table of contents:
On the Sheer Threshold of the Night
Commissioned by the Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt
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On the Sheer Threshold of the Night

Work introduction

The first phase of work on The Mask of Orpheus ended in 1975, when Act 1 and the bulk of Act 2 had been written. Because there was no immediate prospect of a staging, the project lay dormant for six years, until English National Opera took over the commission and encouraged Birtwistle to complete it. His music of the late 1970s, dominated by ...agm..., took off in a new direction, but a year before resuming the stage work he returned to the Orpheus nexus with the “madrigal” he was commissioned to write for the 1981 Bath Festival. For the text of this he used a section of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. In that work the Roman philosopher invokes the Orpheus legend to support his thesis that reason is more powerful than intuition. Orpheus lost Euridice, Boethius maintains, precisely because he relied on the irrationality of love rather than the security of logic: his fault was in being an instinctive musician rather than a rational theoretician.

Birtwistle’s setting articulates musically the dilemma confronting Orpheus. He allots two soloists, a counter-tenor and a tenor, to Orpheus’ lines; they sing in rhythmic unison throughout. To the left of this duality are positioned the male voices of the chorus, promoting the cause of rationality; at their extreme is their solo protagonist, Hades (a bass). To the right of Orpheus are the women’s voices, singing on behalf of intuition and love; their soloist, a soprano, is Euridice. The argument flows from one side to the other: the madrigal is cast in eight sections, the first four introduced by Orpheus calling to Euridice. At the climax of the work, when Orpheus makes his decision, sets his face against reason and chooses irrational love, the chorus is reconciled and the soloists are absorbed. The text switches from Latin to English: “On the sheer threshold of the night Orpheus saw Euridice, looked, and destroyed her”.

Andrew Clements

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World première

Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt am Main (DE)
John Alldis

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