Published: July 2001
As one gets closer to Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Wiltshire home, suburban scenes mutate to rolling green hills. Add a sunny day and blue skies to epitomise springtime England. The music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Butterworth is recalled, not the rugged, desolate orchestral panoramas that are Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances. Incising between consciousness and imagination, they represent for their composer “a more geographical than mystical interest, to do with the structure of landscape, what’s beneath the surface, the strata of it.”
Although from a non-musical family, Birtwistle’s mother “wanted me to learn the flute from somebody round the corner; turned out to be clarinet, that was my way into music”. Accrington-born (in 1934), Birtwistle played in the local military band and various amateur orchestras - “very badly and not realising how bad it was; consequently I didn’t realise the significance of the music. As a schoolboy I went to Halle concerts. I heard Mahler for the first time, Daphnis and Chloe, L’apres-midi and Vaughan Williams. The BBC Northern seemed to play lots of English music”. Birtwistle agrees that he rejected pastoralism.
The end of the war, the inheriting of Webern’s blank sheet of manuscript paper, “certainly made it much easier because you knew where you started”. The contact with Boulez and Nono “appealed to the radical in me; I was very struck by that music which was the opposite to the English thing, but just as a concept, I’m not sure I wanted to emulate it. I’ve never really felt that I made any conscious decisions about the sort of music I’d compose; it’s as if it was given to me.” Birtwistle had wanted to compose since he was seven – “I always had a music in my head, it never corresponded to the music that I played”. He doesn’t though concern himself with an audience: “I wouldn’t know how to do that, I don’t know who it is. I speak directly to myself.”
Then came the decision to play or compose. “I knew I wasn’t good enough; certainly the music was better than the clarinet playing. I would have made it in the profession but I wouldn’t have been top-notch because of the composer in me. It can be a struggle to choose, but as soon as the clarinet was eliminated the problem went away.”
Is there a shock element to his pieces? I’m thinking of Punch and Judy, and Panic. “I’ve never consciously set out to shock. In Punch and Judy, it’s simply a question of setting the idea - what the text is about. I don’t think it’s in Panic. Any piece of modern music in that context [The Last Night of the Proms] would have had a similar impact; it’s quite a nice bit of fun actually.”
Birtwistle describes his compositional process as “an attempt to impose a formal aspect on the way the music speaks; then it comes out as a ritual. Generally I think I know where it’s going, then it usually goes somewhere else; I get into places which I couldn’t imagine and those deviations always seem more interesting.”
When we met, Sir Harrison mentions a 25-minute piece he’s writing for the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnanyi, for premiere in January 2002. Shadow of Night is taken from a George Chapman poem – “I wanted to write a nocturne, the two things become parallel; I didn’t think I wanted to write a piece about the poem. The idea that music is a like an architect’s drawing which you fill out - it doesn’t work, I get very bored with it.I know how I want it to speak … it’s how it unfolds”. It wasn’t unfolding quite as planned when we met. “I’ve just come back from America. I thought I was very clear where I was going and suddenly I’m not clear. I started writing something this morning and the point of its direction is not at all where I thought it would be. If I’d stayed in America another three days I would be in another place writing different modes of the piece.”
Birtwistle’s scoring for the orchestra usually favours the wind and brass; he’s consciously turned the orchestra “upside down. I didn’t like the sound of tutti strings, didn’t know what to do with it, it isn’t in the language of [my] music. And that’s another thing - the identification of the characteristics of the music that you write.”
Yet, one of Birtwistle’s most beautiful pieces is Melencolia 1, for Birtwistle’s own instrument with harp and two string orchestras. A few weeks before we met, this had an excellent performance in the Barbican with Richard Hosford and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jac van Steen. “That’s a very personal piece; you know I was really very pleased because it did exactly what I thought it should have done. In a sense it’s never worked before … whether it’s the occasion, the playing, I don’t know. It worked in my head.”
So, how wide are the interpretative parameters in Birtwistle’s music? “We talk about interpretation in classical music, where people have a lot of opinion. That aspect doesn’t come into it; one doesn’t hear it that many times. Irrespective of the performance, what I have noticed is that music changes - at the back of my mind I hear deformities, like a sore; very often after a period of years you listen again and the sores have gone, healed. Your way of listening changes, you become a different person.”
What are the difficulties in performing his music? “I don’t think my music is that difficult. They find it rhythmically difficult but I don’t actually deal with complex rhythms – there’s much more complex music than mine – but because a lot of my music happens vertically and a lot of things happen together … the problem is co-ordination; it has to be right, precise. If you’re dealing with counterpoint and it’s like this” - the composer makes an out-of-sync gesture with his hands – “it’s like a photo out of focus.”
I had been to see Sir Harrison in connection with a new Deux-Elles CD, which has been recorded in association with The Classical Source ( This CD of … wind-based chamber music? “Occasional music, but not all”. Indeed, Refrains and Choruses is Birtwistle’s ’opus one’. “I wrote it in the army, National Service, about ’56. I was a bandsman. I’d put myself into compositional exile but I knew I would start writing again.”
Comparing Refrains and Choruses with the much later Five Distances – both for wind quintet - Birtwistle sees the latter as “a development of a rhythmical world. There are similarities between them, very strict and very free procedures; Distances is a development of that idea. What occurred to me right at the beginning, and also playing in wind quintets, is that composers think the wind quintet is a wind version of the string quartet, which is completely the opposite. All the instruments are different, that’s why Distances is the way it is. The horn is the odd one because it’s a brass instrument, so it’s in the middle of the symmetry; it acts as a conductor, sets the tempo - a sonic conductor.”
The mention of sonic prompts the parallel sometimes drawn between the soundworld of Birtwistle and that of Edgard Varese. Was he an influence? “It’s funny that … the only Varese I remember hearing was the flute piece [Density 21.5] and then I had a score of Octandre; it was long time after that until I heard any more of his music.”
For Birtwistle, short-form composition offers “relaxation, I pick up from one composition things that are not fully realised and put them in another piece, but you would never be able to find them. I hear something and think ’there’s a bit of juice in that’ - I identify a corner, a chord, a voicing, an orchestration, it could be anything.”
Excepting Antiphonies (a piano concerto) and the recent Harrison’s Clocks – “I think I did it to prove that I could write for an instrument I can’t play” - the piano hasn’t featured much in Birtwistle’s output. He describes Sad Song as “a sort of Bartok, it’s like a Mikrokosmos, something I wrote when one of my kids was playing the piano”. I wondered how Birtwistle would react to a pre-opus one piece– Oockooing Bird – being included on the CD: “I suggested he [Richard Shaw] recorded it!”
In Linoi the piano is a “harp-imitation, a distance from it, the harp wouldn’t be able to do the bangs; the piano’s being used as a prop. Linoi is really about trying to find melody, which is never quite achieved and expressed in the clarinet as a sort of frustration; it starts screaming. He keeps making these attempts, three beginnings, and just as it’s going to happen … well, it’s a death you see.”
Music for two flutes would appear colour-limited. “I wrote the Duets as education pieces; they’re very difficult to play. My publisher was talking about music he couldn’t sell. ’What can you sell?’ He said ’duets for two flutes’, so I said ’OK, I’ll write you some’.”
An Interrupted Endless Melody has a Satie influence, his Three Gymnopedies – “that’s were the interrupted melody comes from, it’s a facet of that way of thinking. In Satie’s case he wrote three versions of the same piece; in mine the melody is always the same, endless, and the accompaniment is different”. Someone had mentioned to me that Birtwistle had made a clarinet and piano version of the Gymnopedies - “I don’t know if was me or Max; it could have been Max.” [Max: Peter Maxwell Davies, one of the ’Manchester School’, which, with Birtwistle, also included Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth.]
Sir Harrison was not that keen to listen to the pre-edit copy of the CD I took with me. “I know exactly how it sounds to me now; I know every note. It changes because I’ve changed. What I have in my head is the ideal piece, without blemishes. In the course of hearing it you hear it with the blemishes – that doesn’t quite work, that’s not what it’s supposed to be, but over time they heal and don’t seem so important; suddenly things work.”
During our conversation, I’m delighted to discover that the monumental first version of Gawain is still performable – the shorter revised version (the one recorded) “I was somewhat blackmailed into … they said they couldn’t afford to do it the way it was first done because of overtime,” albeit he feels the length of the big tableau – the passing of the year – that closes Act One was probably too long. Leaving aside a new commission for the Royal Opera, which Birtwistle is “thinking about,” future plans include “an idea of writing a piece with a lot of little movements, maybe thirty, for a couple of instruments”. Studies? “No, it’s more than that, it’s a question of does the big idea have to be continuous; why can’t the big idea be a collection of epigrammatic movements and a collective be something that’s a big idea.”
This characteristic ambiguity reflects “a certain sort of perversity; they also describe the piece. Titles, they’re like narrative, the most boring thing in anything - in cinema, in a book. You read Pulp Fiction, the exposition and the whole idea of the thing being set up is interesting, then you get stuck with the subject, that’s the boring bit. If you call a piece ’symphony’, well we know where that’s going; it’s an avoidance of that”. Which gives a compositional freedom? “Yes, and I’m also interested in verse and poetry; the thing about all good verse is that there is no true explanation of it.”
This composer without a heritage determines melody as the “linear aspect of harmony”. He beckons me to his CD collection – “if you look over there you’ll see more medieval and renaissance music than anything else; it’s what I listen to. All that renaissance music … you can’t say it’s got a tune but it is melodic. A tune is a 19th-century concept”. For Birtwistle, a CD of his own music is “an extension of composing – it’s all to do with those things you can’t put in the music, but you can hear them when you write it. In an ideal world I like live performance - I like to think I write the sort of music where you have to listen, where it demands attention.”


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