Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Happy Birthday to Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The great British composer turns 80 today! Celebrate by listening to the May performance of Gawain that I attended, which will be broadcast at 18:30 London time. I think that is....right now, more or less.

Here's Earth Dances if you don't have 3 hours for Gawain:


jean wrenham said...

I really do think that Birtwistle is an artefact of the compulsory subsidising of music by predominantly working class taxpayers. He is living proof that it is possible to be rewarded and garlanded as if one were Elgar or Holst or Britten without evoking the slightest admiration, or even recognition, outside a small coterie of fellow-subsidised and a handful of pseuds.

I know that 'predicting legacies is a fool's game'. But then, think about how many composers were big figures in their lifetimes and have all but disappeared now - Halevy, Meyerbeer, Joseph Holbrooke and so on. In the long run music gets played because the public wants to listen to it. Whatever the other reasons may be, Birtwistle's has never been played for this reason, ever. So I wouldn't bet on its longevity.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So I take it you don't like his music? I do, and was lucky enough to attend five concerts mostly of his music in May.

Alas, I won't be around in 50 years to see whether Birtwistle's music is being performed then. I certainly hope so; both of the operas I saw are terrific pieces that should hold the stage.

You've left out another reason music gets played, which is that musicians want to play it.

jean wrenham said...


I have been a musician for about fifty years now, and in truth I have never once heard anyone say, "Did you hear that piece of Birtwistle's on the radio last week?", or "I'm playing some Birtwistle at the moment", or "I really like that piece of Birtwistle's". And of course I couldn't whistle anything of his, nor have I ever met anyone who could. Neither have I ever met anyone in all this time in and around the profession who was interested in Birtwistle's music. What's really striking about Birtwistle is that, notwithstanding that some elite critics think he is of a similar stature to Elgar et al, he is almost totally absent from British musical life. He is our most celebrated composer, but almost no-one involved in the business (whether as a listener, an amateur or a professional player) pays any attention to what he does. And this despite the many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money that, over the years, has been pushed in his direction. In the year after Elgar's First Symphony was premiered it received over one hundred performances in Britain. That's because people liked Elgar's music and were willing to pay to hear it. Other of his pieces have entered the national consciousness, so that even now most British people will recognise Nimrod or the Pomp and Circumstance marches; and those with an interest in classical music will have listened hundreds of times to or performed the symphonies, the Cello Concerto, Gerontius, the Serenade for Strings and the Introduction and Allegro (I could of course go on).
The same is not quite true of Holst and Delius, but it's much truer of them than it is of Birtwistle. The Planets is a work which every musician, like it or not, recognises as a ubiquitous part of the cultural fabric of British twentieth century life. The same goes for the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending with RVW. Nothing, and I mean nothing, Birtwistle has ever written has come remotely close to entering the consciousness of the British people. His music hasn't even entered the consciousness of those charged professionally with the task of delivering it to the waiting masses.

How then have we got to the stage where, despite this strange absence from British musical life, Birtwistle can merit a leader in our leading newspapers on his 80th birthday?

Lisa Hirsch said...

"Entering into national consciousness" and "ability to whistle the music" aren't my gauges for whether a composer's music is worthwhile. Neither is whether people have heard of and talk about a composer: even in the general symphony-going public, knowledge often doesn't extend past the top-50 composers. Try asking people at an LSO or SFS program about Dufay or Machaut, but those composers have an audience, as do high modernists such as Boulez, Carter, and Birtwistle.

If we ever meet, I'll sing you a bit from Gawain, a motif I picked up on two hearings of the opera about a month or so apart.

Lastly, I happen to have friends who mention great recordings or performances of new music - and I know people who certainly are interested in performing Birtwistle's music. At least one reader of this blog participated in such a performance in Berkeley not long ago, in fact.

jean wrenham said...

Birtwistle was also very fortunate when, in 1959, William Glock was made controller of Radio 3 and decided that the cow-pat school of British music was outdated; what the public really needed was a good dose of European total serialism. This tied in rather well with the working class revivalism which followed Look Back in Anger (1956), and it must have helped that Birtwistle was a Northener from Accrington.
At any rate Birtwistle was taken up by Glock, as was Peter Maxwell Davies, and their two careers flourished accordingly. Birtwistle in particular became a poster boy for the kind of "challenging" and "edgy" art whose advocates felt divided them from the safe and suburban Mr and Mrs Concert Goer, arriving in a coach party from Frodsham.... "But it hasn't got a tune", these tedious provincials wailed, bolstering the black polo neck wearing hipsters' sense (already pretty strong) that they themselves were breathing an altogether more rarified atmosphere.
So Birtwistle over the years came to be not just a purveyor of music that almost no-one wanted to listen to, but a symbol (for both sides of the argument) of the idea that avant gardism was not so much paving the way for the masses to follow as constituting an end in itself, a kind of super-art that only a certain tiny percentage of society was intelligent enough to "get". Of course the fact that the masses were paying for their pleasure did not trouble the elite (nor, apparently, Sir Harrison).

So actually Birtwistle is really a British composer only in the sense that the British have paid for him to become what he is. He might be more accurately described as a European composer, firstly because his music owes much more to the European influences which took root on the continent and which, pre-Glock, British composers regarded with some suspicion, and secondly because the idea that an unelected elite should sit at the apex of a system, political or cultural, is one which has more parallels in recent European history than in Britain, with its long democratic traditions.

Ironically, Birtwistle's eminence speaks much more eloquently about British cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century than his music has itself to British people.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I have gotten out of the habit of using phrases such as "cow pat music" to describe any English composers, and of course Birtwistle isn't a total serialist. Yeah, there may be some rows in there, but Birtwistle's compositional methods are diverse.

For the rest....Birtwistle's music is rather strongly tied to English themes, and especially the English landscape (see Yan Tan Tethera, Gawain, Moth Requiem and other works), so your attempt to deny that he is a British composer is falling flat with me.

And Maxwell Davies's music is not much like Birtwistle's, so there are some drawbacks to lumping them together.

Mark Berry said...

Birtwistle seems to have touched a nerve here. (Not yours, Lisa!) That suggests he must be doing something right. Jean writes that he has never evoked the 'slightest admiration, or even recognition, outside a small coterie of fellow-subsidised and a handful of pseuds'. I must be of the latter party, then; as must be a good number of my friends, Lisa included, who attended often not just one performance of his music in May, but several. Already we seem to make up more than a handful, but anyway...

The Barbican's festival caused one of the biggest stirs in London musical life for quite some time, the nay-sayers - remember those absurd, Thatcherite 'Hecklers'? - seeming to have disappeared entirely. Performances of Gawain and The Minotaur at Covent Garden have been acclaimed, sometimes deliriously so, by everyone to the left of The Daily Telegraph.

I have to say that I find the nationalism in Jean's attack straightforwardly bizarre. The longstanding democratic credentials of English/British exceptionalism? Really? This is arguably the last ancien regime country in Europe, at present ruled by a cabal of neo-aristocratic revanchists. Let us leave that aside, though. Yes, Birtwistle is a European composer and all the better for it. Are you really trying to claim that Elgar and Purcell were not? By the same token, there is a very strong vein of a melancholy many of us have considered to be intangibly 'English'. What matters is whether the music is any good. It isn't merely good; it is great music.

Ultimately, it would be wonderful to persuade those who have closed their minds, but there comes a time when it is better to leave them to their 1950s UKIP elegies for an England that never was, and to concentrate our energies elsewhere. Birtwistle's really is a birthday and, more to the point, an oeuvre to celebrate.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Mark!

My recent trip to London was specifically scheduled to coincide with the Barbican Birtwistle at 80 Festival, which I'm extremely glad to have attended, so I am also among the alleged handful.

And here is my friend Patrick's write-up of a couple of Bay Area concerts that featured Birtwistle works.

Mark Berry said...

Maybe we should commission ourselves some T-shirts for the 90th? 'Subsidy or Pseudery? You decide...'

Lisa Hirsch said...

We could have those in a week using Cafe Press!

jean wrenham said...


I remember the premiere of Panic. It was a Last Night of the Proms commission, and it was obvious that Birtwistle had been commissioned to stick two fingers up to the Last Night audience. ("You just want to come here for the tunes and the singalong at the end? Well we'll teach you, you philistines!"). And it was obvious from the satisfied expressions of Birtwistle and the Proms managers as the boos rang out that they'd achieved exactly the effect they'd aimed for, which was to give Birtwistle his Rite of Spring moment.

I thought it was very disappointing. Everyone knows what the Last Night is all about. Here was a chance for the leading British exponent of modern classical music to meet a worldwide audience half way, to offer a piece that, while not compromising the composer's style, could maybe persuade those with open minds that modern music is worth hearing.

People like Birtwistle seem to be more interested in indulging their own ideas than producing music that people truly love -- which is fine if that's how they wish to spend their time, but it doesn't qualify him as a major composer.

Dr.B said...

Don't worry. She hates American music too.

Anonymous said...

It turned out that I didn't even have 33 minutes, let alone 3 hours, for Birtwistle, but I wouldn't waste my 33 minutes on writing futile denunciations of him either. Some people like that sort of music, some don't, and that's been true for a long time.

Until I read the absurd remark that he must be doing something right if he's denounced. What a ridiculous notion.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Dr. B. - do you see comments elsewhere from Jean Wrenham? whose Google+ profile says he is male? And who has absolutely no web presence under that name, according to Google?

Jean - believe it or not, writers, visual artists, and composers all write, make art, and compose for themselves first, not to "produce music that people truly love." I mean, please name a few composers whose stated goal is to do that. They're ALL trying to express their own ideas.

Anonymous said...

Another questionable notion. You can't express yourself if nobody understands what you're saying. This matter doesn't come up that often with music, but with literature, when writers say they're trying to express themselves, it means they're trying to express themselves to other people, and if nobody reads it, they haven't achieved their goal.

When Babbitt said, "Who cares if you listen?" (I know, he didn't write the headline, but it is an accurate summary of the tenor of his article), that was considered a shocking position to take, and it's generally been taken as an unsatisfactory position. And his defenders today generally state that his music does communicate, at least to some listeners in some performances.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I like Babbitt's music a lot; also Birtwistle's. It's certainly communicating with me.

i know people who don't get Mozart! (You know at least one of them, K., maybe both.) They just don't hear anything interesting or important in his music. There's at least one composer you have a low opinion of who is widely, widely performed and very much loved by both ordinary listeners and great conductors.

Certainly there are writers who are not that widely read or understood because of stylistic extremity. In English, I think of Joyce and Stein.

Aleksei said...

Does anyone see Birtwistle eventually being accepted by the ‘average’ concert-goer or CD buyer, or will he continue to go the way of most other post-war modernist composers and remain very much a minority interest? (A sub-set of the already small set of people who actively engage with classical music!)

Would many of his large-scale works have come about if orchestras and opera houses were not given grants of public money?

Lisa Hirsch said...

As for your first paragraph, I don't know. I can't predict the future.

As for the second, composers such as Carter, Boulez, and Babbitt certainly got commissions for at least some of their large-scale works. The money came from someplace and, in the US, is not generally public money. So it's possible.

Mark Berry said...

And where on earth did this idea that 'private' is good, 'public' is bad come from? For a card-carrying neo-liberal perhaps, but not for any of us concerned with society as a whole. A little historical perspective would not go amiss either: most of Haydn's symphonies were not written for a public audience, but for an extremely wealthy, powerful patron. Wagner's Ring might never have been staged, at least in his lifetime, without Ludwig II. Art music has rarely responded to 'market forces' and is all the better for it; indeed, a good deal of its power and worth lies in its resistance to them.

Tom DePlonty said...

I have to admit I don't like much of Birtwistle's music.

I do like an early work, the puppet opera Punch and Judy, pretty well. There is a series of ensemble numbers, sung by the characters that Punch murders throughout the opera (the ensemble getting larger each number) - one of these, for three voices, oboe, bassoon, and drum, caught my ear the first time I heard it. It's ravishingly beautiful - its harmonies, but really everything about it.

It strikes me how much of the criticism of Birtwistle is - would social be the right word? - and says nothing about what is so objectionable about the music itself, as if this is too obvious to mention. That "nobody" wants to listen to it is for one thing not true, and for another thing completely irrelevant to the quality of the music.

kalimac does argue that nobody "understands" it. That is debatable, at least. You just listen to it. No secret decoder ring required. I don't like a lot of Birtwistle, but I assume that's because it's just not my thing, not that he's somehow doing music wrong.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say that nobody understands Birtwistle. DePlonty doesn't understand me.

Tom DePlonty said...

Lisa comment ended: "They're ALL [composers] trying to express their own ideas."

Your reply begins: "Another questionable notion. You can't express yourself if nobody understands what you're saying."

My apologies if I misinterpreted you, and this was not meant to apply specifically to Birtwistle, which is how I read it in context.

Lisa Hirsch said...

So I need to say something more about this.

> They're ALL trying to express their own ideas.

> Another questionable notion. You can't express yourself if nobody understands what you're saying.

The act of expression and the act of understanding are two different actions, performed by different individuals. I can express myself in Swahili in conversation with another person, and unless that person understands Swahili, they will not understand what I am saying. But I am still expressing myself.

So you might be saying that I am futile in expressing myself if one of my goals is to be understood. But that goal might be secondary to expressing myself.

Music's meaning, its point, is, well, indeterminate. I don't really know what Beethoven was trying to express in, say, the 7th symphony. Because of its explicit program, I have some ideas about the 6th.

But there are all sorts of cases where music is expressing something I don't understand because I don't understand the conventions of the time in which the work was written. The ornaments added to bel canto arias may well have had conventional meanings in the early 19th c.

And I refer you to Jonathan Bellman's book Chopin's Polish Ballade for a jaw-dropping look at certain late 18th and early 19th c. conventions that are completely lost to the modern listener. It's not that you can't enjoy that ballade on its own abstract merits, but Chopin's contemporaries heard and understood it very differently from today's listeners.

Lisa Hirsch said...

A P. S. for Tom: I have heard that Punch & Judy is the only Birtwistle opera ever performed in the US, but I can't remember who I heard this from: it was someone reporting to me, personally, that Alex Ross checked and that was all he could find.

Anonymous said...

Your argument down-defines the term "expressing yourself" to meaninglessness. By those standards, a person speaking Swahili to an audience he knows to know no Swahili is "expressing himself"; a person mumbling inaudibly is "expressing himself"; a person standing there thinking hard while saying or doing nothing is "expressing herself."

When you say, as you did earlier, that "they're all trying to express their own ideas," I would take that as meaning that they're trying to express them to other people. But you mean that they're not necessarily trying to express them to anybody. And we're back to "Who cares if you listen?", an argument even you don't use to justify Babbitt, because your testimony is that Babbitt communicates to you.

But if a composer's idea of "expressing himself" doesn't mean expressing himself to anybody, then all of Jean's strictures, especially "more interested in indulging their own ideas" than anything else, are valid, and I would certainly agree with Jean that such a composer, if such a person exists, "doesn't qualify as a major composer."

But I don't think such people do exist, outside of a few outliers such as Milton Babbitt, and (see above) even he doesn't entirely succeed at his goal of failing to express himself in a way that anybody else can understand. Computers are trying to communicate, but only for a short period in music history have they succeeded in communicating to so few.

Anonymous said...

In my last sentence, I meant to say "composers are trying to communicate," though my, "computers" is certainly a revealing slip. Was a computer trying to communicate when it "wrote" the Iliac Suite?

Lisa Hirsch said...

This took some consideration, hence the delay in responding. Regarding "expressing oneself:" Well, composing concert music, which is typically carefully thought out, obviously isn't the same as somebody mumbling to himself or speaking Swahili. But here are a couple of thought experiments.

Consider a performance of Indian classical music. It's a genre that has its own forms, traditions, styles. Present at the performance are two people. One of them is a German, who is knowledgable about the European classical music tradition and has heard some Indian classical music. The other is Indian, an experienced listener to Indian classical music with some knowledge of the technical side of the music.

They're obviously going to have vastly different experiences of the music. The Indian listener understands the conventions of Indian music in the way that I would understand the conventions of Mozart or Haydn (or Brahms or Stravinsky). The European listener might enjoy the sounds, but doesn't have the same grasp of convention and form and style.

The performer and the composer are communicating the same music to each of these listeners. The reception and understand of the listeners differs greatly, but you can't say the performer isn't communicating or the composer isn't expressing ideas just because one listener doesn't understand the music.