Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Happy Birthday, Harrison Birtwistle !

HAPPY BIRTHDAY HARRY! Today is Sir Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday - many happy returns and many more good years ahead! May he thrive like Elliott Carter, always finding new challenges. Birtwistle is Britain's greatest living composer - no-one else comes near, by leagues.  Tonight, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting Gawain, Birtwistle's breakthrough opera. It's from the performance this May at the Barbican, which you can read about HERE. Read about the NMC recording HERE.

Fifty years ago, Birtwistle was one of the Manchester-based Young Turks who created British music in the wake of Britten and Vaughan Williams, the two disparate, discrete musical tribes in this country up to that time. The words "disparate" and "discrete" used correctly! The kind of word-game that Birtwistle loves to play. Alas, with the dumbing-down of language, that aspect of Birtwistle's art may well be lost to future generations. Birtwistle is audacious, but behind his affable mask lies an acutely precise intellect, occupied with  puzzles, games and conundrums. His music fascinates because it's alive with layers whirring away, operating on many levels at once, vivid detail growing as if they were organic life-forms.

Birtistle connects to Boulez, to Messiaen, even to Webern, and also to the complexities of the avant garde in Europe, yet his music seems to spring from some ancient source. When I listen to Birtwistle, I feel the earth move, in the sense that one might pick up on invisible magnetic fields under a calm landscape. Go to Avebury or Silbury at night, when the tourists are gone, and commune withthe souls of the ancients who built those mysteries. Listen to Earth Dances,  to Yan Tan Tethera. and much more and "hear" something so rooted in primeval mysteries that it can only be expressed obliquely through music. Birtwistle plays with time, mechanisms and myth - From Harrison's Clocks to the Maze of The Minotaur, a vast universe of ideas and sounds.

I've often wondered about what really happened when Birtwistle's Punch and Judy was heard at Aldeburgh. The story goes that Britten walked out in despair, alternatively that he went out for a drink. It's even been suggested that the rumour was played up to emphasize Birtwistle's notoriety. Maybe we shall never know, since Britten and Pears are long dead, but it hardly matters. Britten could read a score and he wasn't so stupid that he included things at Aldeburgh he didn't know about. The point, I think, is that music doesn't exist "for" a particular listener, but for itself. And Birtwistle fits with the Aldeburgh aesthetic better than most. Britten and Birtwistle, the two greatest names in 20th century British music.

More on Birtwistle on this site than almost anywhere else.

No comments: