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Recollections of a teenage Birtwistle super-fan

Harrison Birtwistle’s music has been of enormous personal significance to me since childhood.  I must have first heard his strikingly distinctive name in the context of the infamous première of Panic at the last night of the 1995 Proms.  My family subscribed to BBC Music Magazine, and I remember an article about living composers featuring an unsmiling photo and characteristically gruff quote from him – something about not caring what the audience thinks – so I was aware of him as a fascinating but intimidating figure in the musical landscape.

I had just turned 12, a reasonably accomplished pianist and viola player, and also beginning to try my hand at composition.  Pastiche Rachmaninoff was my speciality, later moving on to pastiche Stravinsky, and it would have been at least another couple of years before I heard a note of Harry’s music.

A fortuitous event led me to it: out of curiosity I bought a Boosey & Hawkes score of a contemporary work from our local music shop, only for all the pages to fall out on opening it.  A polite parental complaint to the publisher brought me not only a replacement, but also a sampler CD of Boosey-published composers as well as a free subscription to Tempo magazine and the Boosey and Hawkes newsletter.  The subscription to Tempo and the sampler CD together changed the course of my musical life – Carter is just one of numerous composers I discovered this way, and soon I was trying to pastiche him rather than Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky.

This would have been early in 1998 when I was still 14, as the front page of the first newsletter I received showed a photo of Harry taking applause at the première of Exody in Chicago.   Alongside Carter’s Triple Duo (the last couple of minutes of which were on the sampler CD) I made it my business to order the score of Exody, whose composer’s name the perplexed shop assistant wrote down as ‘Bert Whistle’.  I taped it when it was broadcast on the radio from the 1998 Proms, and spent the next few months losing myself in this intoxicating musical labyrinth.

In March 1999 the CBSO with Simon Rattle played Earth Dances at the Festival Hall.  I must have already heard a radio interview in which Rattle described it as the most difficult piece he’d ever conducted, which surely cannot have been true, but it piqued my interest.  I remember the thrilling, convulsing maelstrom of sound, but especially the breath-taking coda where the mechanism slows and eventually disappears. I can still feel my sensation of wide-eyed wonder at the descending flute scale near the end, and the impossibility of breathing as the final hi-hat tap repeats over and over, seemingly for an eternity.

NMC had recently released their famous recording of The Mask of Orpheus – I saw it mentioned in BBC Music Magazine and could tell it was something I needed in my life.   By good fortune we lived close to an editor at Universal Edition, who lent me the colossal three-volume score of Orpheus, as well as a score of Earth Dances that was at that time undergoing revision.  I lost myself in these works too – a magical, mysterious, unfathomable imaginative world opened up.  Only Wagner has ever had such a narcotic effect on me.

The same year, the BBC broadcast a documentary exploring The Triumph of Time, conducted by Boulez (already by then another hero of mine), which introduced me to this work and also for the first time to Harry himself, interviewed in pensive, ironical mood, not at all the aggressive audience-baiter that I had imagined.

As a 16 and 17-year-old I sought out live performances, managing to see Earth Dances again, Melencolia 1, Panic and Endless Parade, as well as Hoquetus Petrus conducted self-effacingly by the composer himself at the Serpentine Gallery as part of a Proms composer portrait.  I even took friends to concerts in an occasionally successful attempt to convert them – one non-musician friend can still quote the opening motif of Endless Parade, the best part of a quarter-century later.  Playing a CD of Panic to my class in a school lunch-break was, unsurprisingly, not so well-received.

I turned 18 in the summer of 2001, by which point Harry’s music had become inescapably central to my musical, and therefore my personal, identity.  The next step was to take the plunge and conduct a work of his, which I did the following April, a performance with university friends of Secret Theatre.

I first spoke to Harry in the foyer of the Festival Hall at a 2003 performance of Earth Dances given by the Philharmonia.  In one of the books I had read about his music, the final massive brass crescendo (a unison G-natural) is described, with his agreement, as having a quasi-tonal function.  In the revised version this note is a 6th higher, an E-natural.  I found this change disappointing!  I walked up to him and asked him why he had changed it – he looked at me, bemused, prodded me on the shoulder, said ‘I don’t know…. but I’ll find out!’ and walked away.  I still wonder why he changed it, and wish he hadn’t, though his propensity to alter individual pitches in rehearsal with no rationale beyond no longer liking the sound of them was something I later experienced.

Over a decade later I finally properly met and worked with Harry at the time of his 80th birthday concert with the London Sinfonietta, which I shared with David Atherton, and the following year I was honoured to conduct the world première of his chamber opera The Cure, in a double-bill with The Corridor.  Spending several weeks in rehearsals with him, even driving him from his London club to Aldeburgh, I got to know him a little.  Despite being two rather taciturn people from very different generations, we achieved a familiarity to the point of his berating me in the pub in Aldeburgh for claiming jam should be stored in the fridge (‘Why do you think they’re called preserves?!’).

What I did feel from him, enormously significant for me as someone short of confidence at the best of times, and here working with someone I had idolised for 17 years, was respect and trust, gratitude too.  I treasure his dedication in Don Paterson’s translations of Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets, a present to mark the first night of The Cure:  ‘The best experience I ever had.  You can conduct my music any time’, he wrote.  The last time I saw him was in Birmingham in late 2019, where I conducted several of his pieces with BCMG – The Woman and the Hare, Three Songs from the Holy Forest, and the world première of …when falling asleep, which turned out to be one of his last compositions.

Until yesterday I thought of him as the greatest of living composers – this description now has to be recast as one of the great composers of the 20th Century.  I already did think of him as a 20th-century composer still writing in the 21st – he belongs in the same breath as Stravinsky, Bartók and Messiaen, and in terms of creative vision, achievement and reach, his work embedded in the repertoire of leading artists and orchestras, he surpasses perhaps any other post-war modernist.  Possibly only Ligeti, of the modernists a little older than Birtwistle, has achieved something comparable, but the sheer weight, range and scale of Harry’s oeuvre sets him apart.

His modernism is of a flavour that embraces drama and rejects theory, and perhaps that (along with the unmistakable aural relationship between his idiom and some works by Messiaen and Stravinsky) is one reason for his prominence and, dare I say it, accessibility.  Familiar building blocks – harmony, melody and pulse – are remodelled in his music to astonishing, shattering effect in a huge range of works, without ever losing their familiarity; his was a creative imagination that created blazingly powerful musical artefacts whose simultaneous complexity and simplicity defy analysis.  His work and life’s achievement, the sense that all this came from one man’s mind and pen, is unfathomable to such a degree that I place him alongside Wagner in my own personal pantheon.

Geoffrey Paterson, 19th April 2022

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