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Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 15th July 2009
Happy Birthday, Harrison Birtwistle!

It is Sir Harrison Birtwistle's birthday today. So here's an extract of his opera The Minotaur which took parts of Covent Garden by storm last year. This is the fabulous Christine Rice singing the role of Ariadne.


Birtwistle is widely regarded as Britain's most important and respected living composer. His music has a visceral drive and downright gritty tell-it-like-it-is punch that makes it hugely distinctive. Having so said, I've met only two people who actually claim to like it - they, by the way, are both fellow critics. Well, it's not likeable stuff. Liking it is not the point. The Minotaur was brilliantly performed by the Royal Opera, especially Rice and of course 'John Tom[linson]' in the title role; it was amazingly staged, given the full world-class treatment; and the libretto is pure poetry. The music does what the music does. If you dislike it, that doesn't make it bad music, of course - possibly the contrary. But now, nearly a decade into the 21st century is the primary effect of good music on its listeners still to make them suffer?

Birtwistle is the UK composer who seems most likely to be termed 'iconic', 'legendary' and 'revered'. He's commissioned left, right and centre: the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the South Bank, the plum spots for the gift of which all composers would give their right arm. He is seriously famous. Not a household name, perhaps, but certainly a recognisable brand. If you commission Birtwistle, your audience will have heard of him and they know that he is important. Faced with the music itself, the jury can sometimes be a little more divided. 

So what do you think of his music?

 Let's leave aside the old platitude that nobody understood late Beethoven in his day - come on, chaps, only Beethoven was ever actually Beethoven (unless he was Bartok). Birtwistle's discrepancy is the adulation of the musical establishment versus the suspicion of the audience - does this matter? How great a composer do you think he is, and why? Is he a misunderstood genius? Or does he wear the Emperor's New Clothes? Do we overrate him? Or underrate him? Send in your pros and cons!

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June 30th, 2011
12:06 PM
I have only just belatedly discovered this blog but hopefully it is not too late to add my own tribute to Sir Harry, our foremost operatic voice. It is an absolute disgrace that, apart from the splendid Opus Arte recording of The Minataur”, his operas are not commercially available. I have been trying for several years to obtain a copy of the BBC broadcast of Gawain without success. The BBC refuses to repeat it, Opus Arte will not consider it. What of the other three? These are not easy works but what chance do they have if companies will not make them available? The good news is that Minotaur is scheduled for repeat performances at the ROH in January 2013 with Sir John Tomlinson and Christine Rice? In the meantime, I am desperate to get copies of previous broadcasts of his earlier operas!

Music lover
August 17th, 2009
5:08 PM
I watched the 'Mask of Orpheus' at the Proms the other night and this only confirmed my view of HB's music - i.e. that it is boring, pretentious drivel, with no artistic merit whatsoever, being painful to listen to and painful to watch. Without subsidies from the musical establishment, his music would have been consigned to oblivion decades ago.

Martin Walker
August 1st, 2009
1:08 PM
I have seldom responded to Birtwistle as keenly as to Maxwell Davies, but I am becoming more & more drawn to his music. It has more of the processional than the process, the passion in his work has a plangency that allies it with the elegiac rather than the erotic, there is little sense of transcendence - which you can find in Jonathan Harvey - qualities that seem to link him with the ancient roots of our culture more than with the Austro-German or French musical traditions. On the whole, I have appreciated *Gawain* most. I don't think this question of "over/under-rating" a composer is interesting at all; it's what you can find in her or him that counts, "what thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee".

Henry Holland
July 19th, 2009
10:07 AM
Add another non-critic to the list of Birtwistle fans. "But now, nearly a decade into the 21st century is the primary effect of good music on its listeners still to make them suffer?" See, here's the thing: being stuck in an opera house (I refuse to climb over people to leave before an interval) listening to a Handel opera made me suffer, to the point of hoping for a fatal heart attack so I didn't have to listen to another bloody florid aria by the second countertenor. Haydn's music bores me to tears, outside of some operas and the late symphonies so does Mozart's, I can't stand the turgid second rate Beethove-ism of Brahms, don't like Stravinsky after the 3 great Diaghliev ballet scores and I loathe Shostakovich's third-rate Mahler ripoffs. Etc. etc. On the other hand, 30 seconds into Secret Theater or The Triumph of Time or the incredible Earth Dances and Exody or Gawain's Journey or Night's Black Bird, I'm hooked, absolutely riveted and anxious to hear how it plays out. He's written five incredible operas: Punch & Judy, The Mask Of Orpehus (hello, ENO, how about a revival, the first one sold out all 8 performances?), Gawain (the revised version), the absolutely astonishing The Second Mrs. Kong -one of my very favorite operas-- and The Minotaur. I don't care about chamber music by any composer so the acres of it that he's written doesn't register for me. So, Birtwistle's music isn't beloved by the average concertgoer, so what? There IS an audience for Birtwistle and other European modernists like Pintscher, Staud, Kyburz and the old masters like Boulez, early Stockhausen and Nono etc., it's a small but fiercely devoted audience and it should be catered to, just like organ recitals and choral music is. None of the aggravating programming that pairs Pintscher's fantastic Funf Orchesterstucke with Haydn and Brahms, just accept you're not going to sell out the RFH and do it anyways and make up the monetary shortfall by programming acres of all-Beethoven and all-Mozart programs to keep the punters happy. The real 3 B's are Berg, Boulez and Birtwistle.

Adam Wells
July 19th, 2009
6:07 AM
"I've met only two people who actually claim to like it - they, by the way, are both fellow critics." You ought to get out more.

July 16th, 2009
5:07 PM
I would echo Peter Owen's comments. If I could choose only one British composer it would be Birtwistle; and if I had to choose one word to describe his music it would be compelling. There's something about the way in which he explores his material that fascinates and grips the imagination. And every piece seems to have an original form, with new instrumental sonorities. I also think it needs to be said that this is a composer who can write music of immense variety and effect, be it large-scale opera and orchestral music, or chamber and intrumental pieces. Yes, it can certainly be loud at times, but there are many passages of haunting beauty and lyricism. If anyone is looking for an entry point, I'd recommend Secret Theatre from 1984. (And by the way, I'm not a music critic!)

Peter Owen
July 16th, 2009
9:07 AM
I've long admired, loved, liked or whatever Birtwistle's music finding it distinctive, memorable, structurally coherent and moving. I think one reason for this is a result of his not following the serialist doctrine of many of his contemporaries but of his drawing inspiration from earlyish Stravinsky and, especially, Varese.

July 15th, 2009
11:07 AM
Increasingly self-referential and self-reverential

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About Jessica Duchen

Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.

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