Subversion thrives in a melancholy musical mix

Harrison Birtwistle
January 11, 2002

Jonathan Cross's study is a valuable addition to the literature examining the music of Harrison Birtwistle. It places Birtwistle's modernism in a broad cultural context, discussing his aesthetic affinities with visual artists such as Klee and Picasso, and the important influence of radical experimental theatre on his opera and music theatre works.

There is a wealth of insights into the music, expressed in lucid prose with the support of pertinent musical examples. There are no exhaustive analyses here, but rather a series of chapters focusing on the preoccupations of a group of works. This perspective allows Cross to investigate the issue of technical construction in Birtwistle's music, illustrating the formal principles employed and the composer's preoccupation with creating perceptible structures that he can subvert.

Cross's analytical comments are astute: he never reduces the compositional text to simplistic formulas, a useful corrective to the idealised generalisations found elsewhere in the Birtwistle literature. A drawback of the book's structure is that it tends occasionally to homogenise distinctive works and obscures the chronological development of Birtwistle's musical thinking.

The first chapter places the early output in the context of musical modernism of the 1950s and 1960s with sections on composers that exerted an influence on Birtwistle - Stravinsky, Satie, Var se, Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen - and a short section discussing the early preoccupations of the Manchester Group: Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elgar Howarth and Birtwistle. But there is little discussion of the diversity of British contemporary classical music in this period (for instance the operatic context to the Aldeburgh premiere of Punch and Judy in 1967). In later chapters, the focus is solely on Birtwistle's music, a decision that disengages his work from contemporary concerns and tends to understate his influence on other composers.

In referring to Gunter Grass's essay "On stasis in progress: variations on Albrecht Dürer's engraving Melancholia I" (the final chapter of Grass's novel From a Diary of a Snail ), Cross posits that "melancholia as geometria" lies at the heart of Birtwistle's musical personality:

"Birtwistle confronts us with, as Grass expresses it, 'the dark side of utopia'; his creative commentary on Durer's picture could equally well stand for the melancholic character of much of Birtwistle's music." Grass speaks "of how melancholy and utopia preclude one another... Of superabundance and surfeit. Of stasis in progress." These issues become particularly important in the recent multilayered orchestral works, whose geological metaphors also point towards the encrusted poetry of Paul Celan.

The author states that it is not his intention to discuss all of Birtwistle's oeuvre . Nevertheless, most of it is mentioned, with key works appearing in several chapters examined from different perspectives. Yet one has the feeling that the author has been obliged to minimise the text devoted to each work; a pity, because the operas in particular would have benefited from a fuller discussion. The book includes a chronological list of works and a useful discography and bibliography.

Paul Archbold is lecturer in music, University of Durham, and a composer.

Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music

Author - Jonathan Cross
ISBN - 0 571 19345 5
Publisher - Faber
Price - £14.99
Pages - 295

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