Magazine article Musical Times

Beast in View

Magazine article Musical Times

Beast in View

Article excerpt

DIANA BURRELL applauds two valuable additions to the Birtwistle bibliography

ON MORE THAN ONE occasion, Sir Harrison Birtwistle has compared the act of listening to his music to the three-dimensional experience of walking through a town, 'a town with squares, various squares, some more important than others, a town with roads on which you go round and round, in through one square, out through another. You then come back again and approach from another angle, and so on.' This year has seen the publication of two new books on Birtwistle which, taken together, provide a somewhat Birtwistlian approach to the discussion of his work, in that they each offer quite different angles on the man and his work.

Robert Adlington's The music of Harrison Birtwistle is a probing, rigorous discussion of his music. Every single published work is described, as well as several now withdrawn or unpublished. The starting point of Adlington's critique is always the music, but placed squarely in the wider context of contemporary, postmodern culture, for the author points out that contemporary classical music must be considered in this way; if discussion of it is confined to technical and structural issues, it will become increasingly distrusted and remote from the musical experience. Adlington challenges his readers to assess whether what Birtwistle intends in his music is what the music actually does. This thoughtful book deserves a warm reception, particularly in the academic world. There are plenty of robust arguments to be mulled over, and the author, whilst naturally admiring his subject, is not afraid to criticise.

Jonathan Cross's Harrison Birtwistle: man, mind, music, whilst also intellectually rigorous, is perhaps more immediately appealing to the general music-lover. Besides the music, Birtwistle the man emerges within the pages. There is a useful opening chapter setting the composer's context the stark, northern landscapes of his youth and, in particular, his time spent at the Royal Manchester College, where the general air of pro-European modernism was unique in British conservatoire training at the time. These pages teem with details of writers and artists who made an impact and continue to influence Birtwistle, and, in general, there is a welcome holism in the way the music is considered in the light of timeless human pre-occupations. Unlike Adlington, Cross does not attempt to catalogue Birtwistle's complete oeuvre: only certain pieces are discussed, with various technical aspects dealt with in an indepth way There is a very good analysis of, for example, the metric ground-plan of Silbury air in the chapter on pulse.

Birtwistle's main pre-occupations naturally feature in both volumes: theatre, myth, ritual and time are all discussed at great length. Adlington examines the violence of Birtwistle's stage works, observing that `Murder, infanticide, suicide and bodily violence feature prominently in the scenarios of the stage works', and proposes that this composer's musical idiom is well suited to the expression of these actions. `Avant-garde music is widely perceived not in terms of abstract structure but as a hostile and aggressive statement. At least, that is the impression that tends to be given to anyone who has not made a special study of the music.' (One could, of course, argue that murder, suicide, et al. is the stuff of much opera anyway, and that nineteenth-century idioms also served these themes well.) The author quotes Michael Nyman's description of Punch and Judy as a `toy opera', suggesting also that the violence of the characters is `best seen not as representative of some potentially cathartic, archetypal conflict, but as reflective of the more quotidian brutality of motiveless, childlike play' - actually a more dangerous from of violence, since it is effected innocently

Adlington describes Birtwistle's writing for the voice (particularly soprano) as being, if not exactly violent, then extreme in its uncomfortable difficulty, hinting at the thought-provoking notion that perhaps many of the songs are expressive of the subjugation of women. …

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