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.Â
So what do you think of his music?
Â 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!
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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