Opera + Classical Music Features

Harrison Birtwistle: A Reflection



Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who has died at the age of 87, was prolific across a variety of genres. Few nights, however, could rival those spent witnessing one of his extraordinary operas. Our writers pay tribute to his genius by recalling three particularly memorable evenings in the opera house, and reflecting on what the man and his music have meant to them.

Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (Photo: Philip Gatward)

The Mask of Orpheus (English National Opera, 21 May 1986): Back in 1986 a new production of a Harrison Birtwistle opera was guaranteed to empty the opera house and such was the case with English National Opera’s premiere of The Mask of Orpheus at the cavernous Coliseum. The audience for the six performance run could probably have filled one show and it was a very long time before the experience was to be repeated.

I met Birtwistle a couple of times in 2009, firstly in Bath at a festival of his works and later in Snape, where he was having a new work premiered.  It was just prior to the BBC Proms’ stunning performance of Act II of The Mask of Orpheus and, while he was pleased (in a grumpy sort of way) that a section of the work was getting another airing, he bewailed the fact that no one wanted to do another full production.

He had to wait until 2019 for that, a gap of 33 years since the original staging. ENO should be applauded for reviving it, but the less said about Daniel Kramer’s gaudy production the better.

If I wasn’t a fan of Birtwistle before the premiere in 1986, I certainly was from that point on and I grabbed every opportunity to see his operatic works, including the since neglected Yan Tan Tethera and 2009’s chamber piece The Corridor among many others.

David Freeman’s production (design by Jocelyn Herbert) was respectful and skilful, presenting this complex work with simplicity, clarity and precision. An ensemble cast included the late, great Philip Langridge, Marie Angel, Janis Kelly and a memorably booming Richard Angas. Elgar Howarth conducted the monumental score with his usual verve and the one survivor of the 33 year gap between productions, the IRCAM-generated electronic score, was and is awesome.

Birtwistle became rather besotted with the Orpheus legend and returned to it a number of times in his career. For me, the stand out work of his entire output is The Mask of Orpheus for its demanding and exhilarating score and the sheer dramatic excitement of the convoluted and multifaceted libretto. 

If the work has one flaw it is a seriousness which borders on pretentiousness. Moments of humour wouldn’t go amiss in this and other Birtwistle works but it’s a minor gripe.

May it not be three decades before London sees it given another staging and one worthy of a revered and much lamented English composer. (Simon Thomas

Gawain (Royal Opera House, 31 May 1991): A red letter day for British opera, The Royal Opera and Harrison Birtwistle. Back then the 57 year old composer’s music was perceived as being difficult and avant-garde (in many quarters it still is), so the sense of excitement and trepidation at the first night of his Royal Opera commission, Gawain, was palpable. The foyers were abuzz – indeed, looking back it’s hard to think of a more highly anticipated opening than this. Here was a world premiere by the enfant terrible of British classical musical in the country’s highest temple of musical art. If nothing else, it was indicative of Birtwistle’s standing, and acknowledgement of his status as one of Britain’s leading contemporary composers. The audience was awash with the great and the good from the world of the arts – Michael Tippett was in attendance, and hugely enthusiastic, as was the capacity audience. When Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, took their curtain call the House erupted in cheers – a reaction that seemed to take them both by surprise, especially given the cool, and often bewildered reaction to many of his previous works.

It was a thrilling evening. I had recently graduated in music from Birmingham University, where contemporary music was the order of the day. Having been taught composition by Jonty Harrison and Vic Hoyland, one of the composers who figured extensively in those lessons was Birtwistle. Yes, I found some of his compositions intractable, but they really got under my skin. For me Gawain was an embodiment of everything I thought music drama should be. It told the story clearly, imaginatively, and with music of coruscating power and originality. When the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented a semi-staged performance in 2014 at The Barbican, some 23 years later, it was fascinating to hear this miraculous score again, and a relief that its visceral power, and ability to shock hadn’t been diminished in the intervening years.

That May night at Covent Garden, 30 years ago, remains one of the most important and transformative nights I’ve spent at the opera. An audio recording from that first run is available on Spotify, while a video recording lies in the vaults of the BBC. Let’s hope that’s now rereleased or made available to stream on The Royal Opera House website, as I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to Harrison Birtwistle – a musical colossus. His death is an incalculable loss to the artistic life and soul of this country, but we should be thankful for the rich musical legacy he leaves behind. (Keith McDonnell)

The Minotaur (Royal Opera House, 15 April 2008): The music in Birtwistle’s most recent opera to premiere on the main stage of the Royal Opera House might have seemed positively tame or mellow in comparison with either Orpheus or Gawain. However, the brilliance of The Minotaur lay in its being such a rounded and well balanced piece, so that it epitomised the composer’s versatility in tempering the spiky with the sinuous. It would still, however, have been impossible to argue that the score was lacking in power, especially since the percussion, which was placed at both ends of the stalls circle just above the pit, created a virtually stereo sound that made the audience feel right at the centre of the proceedings.

The brilliance of the opera did not derive only from its music, but also from its well chosen subject matter. Based on the ancient Greek myth, The Minotaur describes the Athenian Theseus’ attempts to slay the half-man, half-bull, who resides at the centre of the Labyrinth on Crete, and is fed Athenians as recompense for the death of King Minos’ son. This meant that we had a hero (Theseus) and shadow (the Minotaur) who were cut from the same cloth, since it transpired that they shared the same father. Similarly, both the Minotaur and his sister, Ariadne, craved escape, only one from the Labyrinth and the other from the island of Crete. Above all, at the heart of the story lay an ‘antagonist’ for whom we could not help but feel sympathy as we learnt how he was born into a dark, monstrous existence. Indeed, it was this that created his craving for flesh as he found he could not allow anything so beautiful and innocent to live.

One can only assume that Birtwistle worked very closely with director Stephen Langridge and designer Alison Chitty as, for example, the projected image of solid looking waves was the perfect complement to music that felt eerie as opposed to overtly stormy. Similarly, although the production was high on drama, considering how bloody the subject matter was, it possessed quite an understated quality. When the Minotaur killed the Athenians, they scraped themselves with red as they fell, bringing a degree of stylisation to what would otherwise have been too messy a bloodbath. At the same time, the action was made to feel psychologically intense. Having watched these innocents fall, we felt as if we might finally be granted some moment of peace (Ariadne even sang as much), but suddenly the Keres rushed in to rip out the hearts of the victims, as their carefully designed wings created scraping noises on the stage.

The cast included Christine Rice as Ariadne, Johan Reuter as Theseus, Andrew Watts as the Snake Priestess and Philip Langridge as her accompanying priest, Hiereus. At the centre of the evening, however, stood John Tomlinson for whom Birtwistle specifically wrote the title role. The part certainly places unusual vocal demands on the performer, since in front of people the Minotaur cannot articulate words. Tomlinson’s sound, however, was just as secure and persuasive when he was roaring and howling than when he was soliloquising alone in his dreams. It was a joy to see a composer being so attuned to a specific singer’s unique strengths, including this person’s notable acting skills, which led to the creation of a role in which Tomlinson could be truly overwhelming. (Sam Smith)

Growing up with Birtwistle (1986 – Present): It was my A level music teacher who introduced me to Birtwistle, when I was about sixteen or seventeen. It must have been Earth Dances, because I remember him pulling out this enormous Universal Edition score, whose size and scale suggested something truly monumental, and showing me how Birtwistle passed his music from one orchestral layer to another. Since then Birtwistle has oddly punctuated my life – my first review for this website was English National Opera’s The Mask of Orpheus – and never gone away (until now, I suppose). Most odd was running into the man himself in the French House in Soho on a friend’s stag do some years ago.

Harrison Birtwistle once used the metaphor of perambulating around a medieval Italian city to describe the experience of his music: glimpsing its monuments and piazzi from new and oblique angles, veiled in shadow or bathed in sunlight, defamiliarised and remade by the forces of time and space. This is felt keenly in his work for trumpet and strings Endless Parade and the labyrinthine, snaking pathways of Silbury Air, in which we suddenly turn a corner to find ourselves at a nexus of pathways announced by bass drum.

Birtwistle uses the visceral, hieratic ritual of Greek drama to generate compelling musical spectacles. In Secret Theatre (1984) instrumentalists move from solo platform (‘cantus’) back to chorus (‘continuum’), an abstract drama of musical role playing. In Panic for brass, winds, percussion, solo sax and drum kit, which infamously frightened the horses in 1995 at the Last Night of the Proms, the two soloists run amok, breaking away from the prevailing chorus of winds and brass with their own tempo and improvisations. At one point, the drum kit even absconds with a riotous quartet of trombones. “What was he doing, the great god Pan?”, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem asks in the opening pages of the score, “spreading ruin and scattering ban”.

Sometimes it is music that moves with a slower logic. The sense of the inexorable unfurling processional animates – with a kind of primal melancholy – his orchestral work The Triumph of Time, inspired by a Breughel woodcut. His 1986 masterpiece Earth Dances – a piece that makes The Rite of Spring sound like Delius – works through various ‘strata’. Packages of material move up and down, carried by skittering woodwinds, as if through geological layers – clay, sandstone, mud, churned up topsoil, variegated textures and viscosities abounding. It sounds terrifically complex, but Birtwistle’s music anchors our ears – somewhat – through the simplest of melodic gestures in the piece – a minor third, orbiting around D and F. This is music that never settles, even if its movement has prehistoric slowness. If a cliff face could sing, its song would be Earth Dances.

A conversation with conductor Martyn Brabbins begins with them picking fruit in his Wiltshire garden – a chilly pastoral that sums up Birtwistle’s windswept lyricism. He was a funny guy, though – wry, laconic, bullshit-free. “We’re not really here to talk about fruit and vegetables”, Brabbins says over a plate of quinces. “More interesting, but never mind”, interjects Birtwistle. It’s music that is like food, in some ways: you smell and feel it before you have time to think about it. (Benjamin Poore)


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