My Birtwistle Journey
by Jayne Lee Wilson
My own Birtwistle journey began in 1988 with the BBC R3 Barbican Weekend. I’d only just returned to
classical listening after a decade of rock, pop and indie, but I cannot recall what drew me to this three-day event; my only previous HB encounter was The Triumph of Time at the Proms in the early 70s… perhaps some Roundhouse performances….
I recorded as much of it as I could on an AIWA ghetto-blaster, researching in books and Gramophone magazine at the local library to follow up. When I saw the program of “Still Movement; Endless Parade”, I thought this was a single work - complementary titles. Both are, of course, among the composer’s most attractive music: one became famous thanks to a starry soloist; the other is largely forgotten.
I was mesmerised by the haunting choral works, often Orpheus offshoots, like The Fields of Sorrow and On the Sheer Threshold of the Night, but the work that stunned me most was Verses for Ensembles - Birtwistle at his most extreme, uncompromising, whether in sheerly physical, confrontational violence or reflections upon it. Utterly original, it could only be by him. Tragoedia is very nice for its wind and horn solos, but Verses is the definitive statement of that era. (The Lyrita CD gives you everything from it that you might crave).
Earth Dances was the climax to the event; after that, I was devoted, following HB on Radio 3 (I couldn't afford a CD Player) and recording whatever I could. This reached my own Grand Finale with the RFH 1996 revival of The Mask of Orpheus, which I managed to fit on three TDKs thanks to the advent of the TDK MA100 model. I had the large-format libretto/book sent from Manchester Library to help me through, (which I copied - yes, all of it, doubtless illegally, at the library again). Now of course, the CDs are the carrier (shame you can’t get the booklet in large format…).
I regard this work as one of the towering masterpieces of European Classical music, for its embrace of centuries of myth and poetry, its layers of meaning, its extensive, hauntingly unforgettable use of electronics, the vocal evocations of the Land of the Dead (especially at the start of Act 3) and of course its sheer musical intensity and originality. Multifaceted in its vision of memory and experience, it seems to contain whole universes, not just many possible worlds. With Birtwistle, everything seems to lead toward, and then away from, Orpheus - the figure and the opera. I heard an interview with Rattle once, where he said that Alfred Brendel considered just two of the phenomena of English Music to be genuinely world-class: “Purcell and The Mask of Orpheus”.
I guess it was a little tongue-in-cheek, but …
So on into the 21st Century, and now the post-mortem - and what stands out?
The love of procession, theatre within the orchestra or on the stage, obsession with myth and ancient story, early musical forms and styles made new, the evocations of sung texts, the sonically primal brass and percussion outbursts, the expressive extremes – the utter lack of expressive compromise. HB always makes sure you could not mistake his meaning, howsoever difficult it is to frame it in any critical words. Such an artist defies easy summary.
Personal favourites? Punch and Judy, “…agm…”, (stunning, and yet another forgotten masterpiece), Verses, Night’s Black Bird, Antiphonies, The Tree of Strings & 9 Movements/Pulse Shadows (string quartets - Shadows is the longer version with the devastating Paul Celan settings), the earlier eruptive originalities of Carmen Arcadiae, Silbury Air, The Staged Instrumental dramas of Secret Theatre and Theseus Game - which work surprisingly well in stereo - Exody (another processional in HB’s own self-invented genre), the Violin Concerto (Chicago SO/Proms Commissions, both among his greatest music), The Second Mrs. Kong (I recorded this and I phoned Glyndebourne for the libretto, which they gladly sent; as with so much later and recent work, it never yet appeared on record - my tapes are now unplayable.). Too many to list…
My HB shelves are very full, full of dazzlingly consistent musical intensity and reinventive originality. He has an instantly recognisable voice, yet he rarely repeated himself. I came to see him almost as a friend, a hero, a presence that enriched my life when it was at a pretty low ebb, physically and mentally - an artistic project which I followed devotedly throughout. He gave us so much. I honour him very deeply.
Did the last works show some self-repetition, some faded intensity? Perhaps. Though drawn as ever to their soundworld, I couldn't find much in Responses (the 2nd Piano Concerto), Broken Images or the later vocal/choral works (e.g., the Moth Requiem, Angel Fighter) and chamber works that I hadn't heard (perhaps more sharply focussed) in the inventions of previous decades. Or you could simply say these are new adventures in a now familiar idiom. The Tree of Strings certainly seems full of fresh greenery. “Birtwistle being Birtwistle”, I sometimes feel about some of the later work, but of course I know them less well; they are very subtle in sound and in sense, and I’ve probably missed much which may be revealed on my return. The recent chamber releases on BIS and ECM bring the later Brahms to mind, and after all, Birtwistle had achieved, he had earned the right to long, slow, fading reflections on a lifetime of dazzling originality.