Harrison Birtwistle and the passing of time

May 16 2022, by Patrick Maxwell

Time is the most ambiguous concept in music. It’s an art that tries to control it, tries to invade the seconds of an audience’s life with something all-powerful. The best music tells us that it’s the most important thing around, the only thing that matters, for a short period of time.

Harrison Birtwistle, who died last month at 87, was a composer obsessed with the passing of time. During his compositional prime in the 1970s and ‘80s, the idea of processional music came to the forefront of his imagination. His most well-known orchestral piece is The Triumph of Time, a vast orchestral monologue first performed in 1972. The subject is the elder Brueghal’s woodcut of the same name (below), a startling piece portraying Time’s personification being chased by that of Death.

The Triumph of Time is a piece obsessed with this extra-musical meaning, even if first listeners do not experience it as such. In the Bruegel, ordinary life carries on in the background, indifferent to the steady, triumphant march of Time and Death. In the piece, Birtwistle attempts to focus our minds on that indifference, on the obvious transience of daily life, and the threat of mortality.

Despite being one of the composer’s most renowned works, The Triumph of Time has never exactly been a concert-hall seat-filler. Birtwistle had been pigeon-holed as a member of the ‘Manchester School’, a group of composers and performers which grew out of the New Music Manchester Concert of 9 January 1956. Peter Maxwell Davies was its most famous exponent and, along with Alexander Geohr and John Ogden, a supposed group was formed. The Manchester School has begun to be seen as the most significant musical ‘movement’ as such since the heights of Britten and Tippett. Maxwell Davies was known for his impassionately individual style: the Eight Songs for a Mad King had David Bowie at its London premiere in 1969. The evocation of George III’s mental state in that piece, through the five-octave range of the male soloist and stunning orchestration, was a clear sign that British music was losing its direction. Death in Venice was not even written; Britten was still the darling of the musical establishment. Maxwell Davies brought more of the continental music of Ligeti and Stockhausen to the forefront of the British scene, becoming the latest enfant terrible of the avant-garde to shock music critics into acceptance. Birtwistle was a latecomer to the profession, and abandoned the clarinet to become a composer in 1965.

Maxwell Davies was very much a public figure, with his large orchestral works and eminently popular pieces such as Farewell to Stromness; He became Master of the Queen’s music in 2004. On the other hand, Birtwistle was famous for his introverted persona. ‘Uncompromising’ was the adjective most employed during his various press obituaries last month, and the gruff exterior mixed with powerfully discordant musical focus presented the cliched picture of the reclusive atonal composer, writing for himself rather than a receptive audience. Birtwistle took longer to gain the accolades trotted out by the musical establishment to Maxwell Davies.

Yet what has been so noticeable and surprising about the Manchester School has been the financial backing of the state and musical establishment. Birtwistle’s most famous supporter was Pierre Boulez, the doyen of the French avant-garde. Despite the difficulty of his music, Boulez was well backed by the more liberal French governments of the 1980s, and Birtwistle enjoyed something of the same in Britain. His operas, although never popular, were consistently performed at Covent Garden and elsewhere. The premiere of Panic at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995 caused a scandal; Birtwistle’s music derided by the press and the listening public. It seemed like a typical case of establishment refinement and pretentiousness being stacked against the pomp of Arne, Elgar and Parry always waiting at the end of the programme.

Yet such a piece as the Triumph of Time shows the other side to Birtwistle. Rather than aggressive modernism, it’s a piece riddled with a sense of the ancient and modern, the human impulse to movement. It certainly takes time to endear the ear to. Often dubbed mahlerian in its proportions and sense of tragic, fatal dread, the piece has a blistering side as well as a softer contemplation. Yet listen to the three-note saxophone line which recurs throughout. In all the chaos, the lack of development, the ever-moving steps of the Brueghel elephant and the figure of Death, the three notes rise out of the texture like melancholy notice. It’s like a piece of time that never does change, like a figment of our musical experience which really does come again and again, that really can stay unchanged. And that’s a good enough illusion for any music to keep up.

Patrick Maxwell, L6

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