The inimitable Birtwistle

The British composer’s music fits into no convenient category. That is what makes it so brilliant

Music
Harrison Birtwistle: Forces the listener to pay attention (credit: Hanya Chlala)

Explaining Harrison Birtwistle, who turns 80 this month, to someone who has never heard his music is rather like offering chocolate to a newly-landed Martian. Nothing about the product instantly appeals. It looks earthy, sounds dull and feels, in the worst sense of the word, organic — that is to say, too close to gross fundamentals for comfort or pleasure.

On first exposure, it’s as unexpected as the game of cricket. “But it’s so English!” exclaimed the late Gerard Mortier midway through The Minotaur, dismissing with a continental shrug an opera that sold out two runs at Covent Garden, something few new works can hope to achieve. “Clear your mind,” I urged Gerard, “open your ears.” But he couldn’t. Not out of Anglophobia; simply, he was unable to find a way in.

The problem with Birtwistle is that he is a one-off, an original. From the night in 1967 when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears walked out of Punch and Judy, his first opera, muttering about “intolerable violence”, it should have been clear that he was never going to fit into any canon or convenient category, English or other.

Birtwistle’s music sounds, on first hearing, extra-planetary, unfathomable. At second attempt, unaided, it gets no less weird. Yet I know no music of recent times that yields so easily to a key in the lock and, swinging open, delivers a sensation that is unearthly in the best sense of the word — that is to say, beyond earthbound imagination.

The door opened for me 30 years ago, a time when Covent Garden turned down Birtwistle’s second opera and the Coliseum was struggling to make sense of The Mask of Orpheus, in which the hero crosses into the underworld not once but several times, resisting the rule of narrative coherence. I sat through the dress rehearsal and three of the five performances, marvelling at the power of an artist who confronted the world altogether on his own terms, part real and part dream. 

I went to visit him on a bare French mountaintop where he retreated from the constraints of normality after serving for a while as Peter Hall’s director of music at the National Theatre (few knew that the music they heard in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus was Mozart through the Harry looking-glass). His spartan studio looked out on barren slopes. He lived, with his wife Sheila, among middle-aged Frenchmen with parade-ground front gardens who looked as if they had been retired from the Foreign Legion in disgrace.

Harry loved it. The grey rocks, the scraggy sheep, reminded him of the scrubland where he grew up, on the edge of Accrington (his Minotaur, Sir John Tomlinson, hails from the same Lancashire wasteland). It was a nowhere land, ideal for a lonely boy. He trudged though fields with a wailing reed and a Greek myth in his head, or so he said. Conversation with Harry is conducted in fragments. He tells Fiona Maddocks in a gripping new book of conversations titled Wild Tracks (Faber, £22.50) that his father was variously a baker, a farmer, or a black-marketeer. When Fiona prods for detail, he scuttles away. Or talks about cricket, a Lanky passion.

He cherishes the French pronunciation of his name — “Hérisson” — a hedgehog, a low and furtive creature that throws out spikes at a hint of danger. Birtwistle’s music is a bit like that, defending itself from casual acquaintance, forcing the listener to make a decision and pay attention. “None of that Classic FM rubbish,” he scoffs.

A release of his Moth Requiem by the BBC Singers (Signum Classics) requires a moment of aural adjustment, as the eyes must when entering a cathedral’s darkness. But, as the ears clear, the music opens out a space of numinous wonderment, of near-sanctity. I asked Harry, around the time he composed The Last Supper, if he believed in God. “Dunno,” he grunted. “Mind your own business.”

Enter the world of Birtwistle and you do so on his terms. I heard the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra talk of smashing his violin after barely managing to negotiate the world premiere of Earth Dances — for me, the most aptly named, riotous work for orchestra since Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Harry wasn’t bothered.

“What people don’t understand, Norman,” he said, sitting at his huge draughtsman’s board, “is that it takes me three days to score from the top of the page to the bottom, and all I get is a few seconds of music. By the time I’m halfway down, I’m bored with the idea and want to be doing something else.”

The loneliness of the long-distance composer is no cause for public sympathy nor subsidy: Birtwistle hates the system of public grants, saying there should be either enough for all, or nothing. What counts is the outcome. I took with me to see Gawain a friend who knew nothing of music beyond neoclassical Stravinsky, a psychologist by vocation, specialising in severe head injuries. When the green knight is decapitated for the first time — as ever in Birtwistle operas, there are irrational repetitions — I looked across and saw tears trickling unnoticed either side of my friend’s nose. Once more, I became aware of the visceral force of this man’s music, its uncanny ability to reach parts other art cannot touch.

Birtwistle’s work does not need my advocacy. It has been taken up with enthusiasm and persistence in Berlin (by Barenboim), Cleveland (Welser-Möst), Paris (Pierre Boulez) and Rome (Antonio Pappano). For all that, it remains a cultivated taste, eluding many excellent conductors and causing many musicians to complain — as the BBC concertmaster did — that it is written poorly for their instrument. Birtwistle is unfazed by the complaint. He aspires to the beyond. If the instrument is inadequate, he would say, build a better one.

If you’ve never heard a note of Harrison Birtwistle and want to know what the anniversary fuss is about, try to catch a live concert of Earth Dances, or a recording of the processional majesty of his trumpet concerto, Endless Parade. For a fusion of the organic, the aesthetic and the intellectual, enter the world of Pulse Shadows, an hour-long work for string quartet, soprano and ensemble, based on poetic fragments of Paul Celan. It is simply inimitable.