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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lancaster

Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

The recent death of Sir Harrison Birtwistle (in April 2022) has left a huge gap, in my life and in the musical world at large; he was a unique voice amongst composers and he leaves a vast legacy of astonishing music. To Harry I owe a significant debt, because it was his music, more than anything else, that made me want to become a composer.

I first encountered his music, quite by chance, on a brass band summer school in 1975, when conductor Elgar Howarth introduced delegates to ‘Grimethorpe Aria’ - and I was completely blown away by the emotional power of this music. I don’t imagine that I fully understood it then, but it drew an immediate, powerful reaction. I asked Elgar Howarth ‘how do I learn to write music like that?’ and he suggested studying music at university, Manchester or York, which is what I eventually did. As a fourteen-year-old, growing up in Wigan, this was huge: ‘composer’ had not been something that we could hope to aspire to in our wildest dreams, even though I had been ‘writing things down’ since I first picked up a cornet/trumpet a couple of years earlier. Most of my compatriots at school wanted to join the army or work down the mines, and you could get beaten up for wanting to do something different! If they weren’t dead foreigners, composers generally came with suits and posh accents but here was someone from my part of the world, writing for brass band (something that Britten, Tippett or Walton hadn’t done) and creating a music which seemed to resonate with the landscape in which I lived. It was intense, moody, dramatic and dissonant, and I felt that it belonged to me completely. My A-level Music curriculum included pieces by Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen, which I studied extensively, but whilst their music fascinated and intrigued me it didn’t impact upon me in the same visceral way. (Of the three I felt drawn more towards Messiaen; later I discovered that Harry had found Messiaen highly influential).

As an undergraduate at York I encountered a lot of new music, from student composers, staff and distinguished visitors (who included Rzewski and Feldman, amongst others). There were some outstanding composers amongst them but I found it a somewhat bewildering array, and it took a while for me to discover my own voice. But unsurprisingly that was consolidated by my second encounter with Birtwistle, when the university’s new music ensemble gave a performance ‘Fields of Sorrow’. Again, I was transfixed by the inner drama, multi-layered textures and melancholy lyricism, but was now in a position to access scores and recordings, and I had a connection with the composer via my tutor Alan Hacker. I heard a great deal of new and experimental music during that time, but it was always Harry’s music that drew me in; when I saw a performance of ‘Bow Down’ at York Arts Centre I found it so compelling that I went back and saw it again the following evening! I met Birtwistle for the first time at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1981 when he was the featured composer, and heard more of his work including the premiere of the ‘Clarinet Quintet’. Further performances and a dissertation on Birtwistle ensued, moving in parallel with my own growing confidence as composer, which ultimately resulted in my first public performances.

In 1984 I was asked to review Michael Hall’s new book on Birtwistle for Tempo magazine, and in 1986 I was invited to play a part in the production of ‘Mask of Orpheus’ at ENO in London. (By this time I was Composer-in-Residence at Charterhouse, enjoying commissions and regular London performances, and able to attend Harry’s premieres: ‘Secret Theatre’ and ‘Earth Dances’ made big impressions). My role in the opera was the ‘Voice of Apollo’, a resonant, stentorian synthesised voice which was triggered from a sampler, at specified moments in the score, booming out around the auditorium! Based in the control room at the back of the stalls, I watched the conductor via a monitor, following the score as though my life depended on it! Of course, this meant that I attended every rehearsal and performance of the opera which proved massively influential; in fact, it took a long time to get Orpheus out of my system and some of the music I wrote in the following years was unhealthily close to this very powerful model.

I can’t remember the occasion, but it was after a concert in York which included a piece of mine and some of Harry’s work that we went out for a curry together, with Alan Hacker and a couple of the other musicians. We studied the menu carefully but when the waiter came Harry ordered for all of us – we’ll have Six Tandoori Mixed Grills and two bottles of Macon Blanc, please – and he paid (but not before he’d persuaded me to take the wine back because it was corked; I’m sure that the waiter brought the same two bottles back to our table but Harry said they were OK – he’d had his moment of fun!).

When I left Charterhouse in 1988 I didn’t compose very much for several years, beyond some incidental music for rep theatre (for the Redgrave Theatre, in Farnham) and when I returned to composing I was determined that it should be with a voice that was recognisably my own. My musical interests had widened, and I wanted to be able to compose – without any sense of condescension - for students, children, bands, choirs and festivals, and not exclusively for a ‘contemporary music scene’ which often felt remote, arcane and unwelcoming (which to a large extent it had done even when I was a fully paid-up member in the 1980s). To what extent Harry’s influence remains evident in my recent work is not clear: Roger Marsh, my PhD supervisor told me that he couldn’t hear it at all, but when ‘Strata’ was recorded in Brno the producer (US composer Douglas Knehans) turned to me at the end of the session and said ‘wow, I can tell that you know Harrison Birtwistle!’

Trying to express why his music affects me so strongly is very difficult: I’ve attempted before on many occasions, and always failed to capture the entirety of it. But here goes…

There’s an underlying lyricism in everything he does. Sometimes it screams at you, sometimes it’s fractured and fragile, but it’s always deeply human: that fundamental requirement to sing. As a trumpet player I associate with the need to phrase, to accommodate breath, but ultimately to conceive of music as a single line. Harry was a clarinettist before he was a composer, so in his upbringing, as in mine, the concept of melody as an elemental component of music was foregrounded. Birtwistle deals with the big subjects, and there’s little in his work that is flimsy or decorative; this isn’t about tunes, it’s about breath and therefore about life itself.

Similarly, rhythm too is crucial – the beat of our pulse. In Birtwistle’s music there is nearly always a sense of an inexorable slow pulse – even in his quicker music – which connects to the deeper rhythms of our bodies. I first heard this in ‘Triumph of Time’ but it’s even stronger in ‘Earth Dances’ and it’s never far away. The network of pulses in ‘Silbury Air’ holds an endless fascination, and it’s a piece I often study with students. Birtwistle and I also share a delight in repetition, which works on every level from pensive single repeated notes to repeated motifs (such as the apocalyptical soprano sax in ‘Triumph of Time’) which build structures and provide essential landmarks, but also from one piece to the next. Sometimes this is explicit (such as in the harp chords that conclude ‘Silbury Air’ and ‘Melencolia I’) but more usually there is the strong sense that each individual piece represents one aspect of a bigger, more complete ur-composition in the composer’s mind, one that can never be heard in its entirety but which leaves an indelible impression upon all of his works just the same. You can usually recognise one of Harry’s pieces in just a couple of bars, so unique is his musical identity. I was secretly thrilled when Robert Hollingworth said the same of my work – though perhaps it wasn’t intended as a compliment! – and my colleague (at York St John University) Murphy McCaleb is quick to point out passages of ‘classic David’.

The notion of a background ur-composition that is ever-present but never articulated links with the idea of exploring music as a solid object, something that Harry frequently spoke about. A three-dimensional object can never be seen complete (from all sides simultaneously) so we need to rely on memory to understand how it all fits together, as we do in music. Harry’s music isn’t traditionally symphonic, with a logical, linear process of development, but it remains organic and we can explore it as we might explore a town, seeing familiar objects from different directions and perspectives as we meander around the streets to form a complete understanding of its layout/structure. In Harry’s work this is more than a geography lesson, this is the key to the inner drama of the music: the ‘objects viewed from different perspectives’ are protagonists in a ritual theatre. My music shares that idea of moving around a static object using minimal means: a recent reviewer observed that I had ’built an attractive little house using very few bricks’ – and I’ll probably never compose a symphony…

Harry’s music is often described as violent and is some instances it clearly is. He didn’t set out to describe the world around him, but it is certainly reflected in his work; it isn’t superficial or gratuitous, it springs from a preoccupation with life and death which is manifest in the subject matter he chooses, whether ‘Punch and Judy’ or ‘The Minotaur’. But the violence is counterbalanced by the profusion of gentle lyricism elsewhere, such as in the reflective poetry of ‘La Plage’, where lyricism, pulse and a multidimensional structure perfectly combine. My musical tribute to Harry will be a companion piece to ‘La Plage’ inspired by the angels of Paul Klee – an artist whose work he introduced to me.

Harrison Birtwistle allowed me to become a composer, and he showed me how to do it: a lad who played in a band in Lancashire, with a strong northern accent and a reluctance to speak about his music (or, rather, with the hope that the music might speak rather more eloquently for itself) could become a composer – not that I’ll ever be in the same league. Harry was the same age as my dad, and he became a sort of musical father figure to me. My Orpheus, if you like.

I think I’ve said enough, as Harry used to say.

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