Not long ago I was listening to Schumann’s third symphony on a CD that I had just bought second-hand. Although I was enjoying the music, my attention was elsewhere in the kitchen preparing the dinner. Suddenly I heard a disturbing noise coming from the CD player. At first, I genuinely thought the disc was faulty, but, no, it was ok. Whatever was emanating from the player though, was definitely not Schumann...
The disc cover explained all. It was an extra track, by way of advertising; a two minute excerpt of something called ‘Pulse Shadows’ by Harrison Birtwistle.
I have encountered Birtwistle before. My wife and I attended a Promenade Concert in 2011 using tickets donated to us by a friend. The second half was Holst’s Planets, a piece of which I am very fond, but had not, until then, ever heard performed live. The first half consisted of Isabella, by Frank Bridge, and the United Kingdom premiere of Birtwistle’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. The orchestra was the BBC Symphony conducted by David Robertson.
The performance of The Planets was absolutely superb; breathtaking. Yet again I was reminded that no Hi-Fi system can remotely match the dynamic range and excitement of a live performance. The Birtwistle too was breathtaking, but in an entirely different way.
We listened to it on that summer day in 2011; I listened to part of it again on i-Player, just to confirm that I wasn’t imagining anything. And while writing this, I listened to part of it, yet again, on U-Tube – the Prom performance that I attended. This is what various critics said about the work following its world premiere in the USA:
"A work of true originality…evokes traditional form while always keeping at a subtle remove from it…ideas flow forth…" The Sunday Times
"Mr Birtwistle, 76, is a towering figure in British Music. His language, though complex and modernistic, is distinctive and exhilarating…Throughout the piece the violin plays a stream of jagged chords, gnarly intervals and twisted thematic flights…" New York Times
And following the Promenade concert, in a piece entitled “Genius is a secular sainthood…”
"…Yet even in the brief dip into the range of contemporary music offered by the Proms, I got a glimpse of what genius means…the composer I’m referring to is better known…as a northern curmudgeon…I mean Harrison Bertwistle…his music…makes you aware of primal simplicities…his pieces all add up to a coherent world…I don’t like all of Birtwistle’s pieces…liking or disliking isn’t the point. In creating [his] own world, [he] helps us make sense of this one…" Daily Telegraph, Ivan Hewett
Hans Andersen’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes came strongly to mind when I read some of these reviews, although I think Ivan Hewett’s piece belongs firmly in Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner. The New York Times had it rather well, I thought; “jagged chords, gnarly intervals and twisted thematic flights” describes the piece perfectly. To that I would add nerve-janglingly disharmonic and lacking any sense of rhythm or pulse, or whatever the proper term is. It was a sound, I imagine, like one of those large lorries that carry orchestral instruments around the country might make, coming to grief on an icy road and performing multiple collisions at it slowly disintegrates...
It was not a pleasant 25 minutes listening, and I was very glad when it stopped.
Now I would have left Bertwistle alone, and contented myself with the knowledge that I am very conservative when it comes to music; Wagner and Mahler have quite enough discords for me. None of them come close, though, to the “gnarly intervals” of the northern curmudgeon’s music, which remind me of the motion of my first car after I had fiddled with the engine mounts; it would describe a sort of grasshopper motion when moving off from stationary.
But I happened to read, in a link appended to Ivan Hewett’s piece, an account of Birtwistle at the Ivor Novello Awards some years ago. He had, apparently, won an award, but had to listen to various pop-singers and bands play before he was invited on stage to collect his prize. He declared: “I’ve never heard so many clichés in a single day…and why is your music so effing loud?” It probably was loud, and no doubt the lyrics – or was it the harmonies – were cliché-ridden. But harmonic it probably was, and to tempo, almost certainly. Don’t get me wrong, I would not cross the road to listen to modern pop music; almost no-one since Jerry Lee Lewis comes close... However, a vision of pots shouting at effing kettles rose before my eyes, and I could not resist a chuckle.
Apparently Birtwistle is 80 this year, and the BBC is celebrating the event by putting on several of his pieces at The Proms. I will not be going.
Any attempt to define “Art” is doomed to failure, but one personal measure that I use of “good” art, whether it be a play, a piece of fine art, a book or a musical work, is: would I want to see, read or hear it again? “Good Art” gives me pleasure; the pleasure I get from Harrison Birtwistle’s music, is when it stops…
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs