Harrison Birtwistle – some thoughts

by Ben Hogwood

I can well remember my first encounter with the music of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, as it left me with a headache. It was part of Sir Simon Rattle’s groundbreaking Towards The Millennium series with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, back in the 1990s at the Royal Festival Hall.

After a first half of Gubaidulina’s Offertorium had moved me to tears, I was not quite prepared for the sheer force of Sir Harrison’s Earth Dances. The work hit me square in the face, and not in a good way – I found it industrial to the point of confrontation, and could not see a way in to liking his music in spite of many admirable qualities.

More fool me. As time has gone on I have realised how it is possible to respect a composer’s music without necessarily liking it. I could sense the craftsmanship running through Birtwistle’s work, the expert hand in knowing the forces he was writing for, the drama unravelling in each of his pieces. More and more, I realised respect was turning into admiration and – in some cases – appreciation.

An encounter with Silbury Air at the Proms was a memorably mysterious occasion, falling under the spell of some beautifully written music – as English as Vaughan Williams, it seemed to me, and wholly descriptive of the countryside in a very different way to what we usually call ‘pastoral’. Verses, too, I found to be intensely dramatic, full of interesting event and persuasive musical phrase.

I also warmed to the Moth Requiem, premiered at Cadogan Hall in the same year, a touching piece with remarkably pictorial textures. To me it implied a slight mellowing of older age.

At this point I sense I have not yet spent enough time or effort with the music of Birtwistle to fully appreciate it, but it is clear that this is not music that gives up its treasures easily. Its respect has to be earned. I am full of admiration for Birtwistle, and can see how he has come to be revered in the way he has. I look forward to the penny dropping in the future.

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