This year – 15 July 2009, to be precise – is Harrison Birtwistle’s 75th birthday. It seemed a good idea – well, absolutely vital – for us at the Bath International Music Festival to mark the occasion with some kind of celebration. But what started out as one concert quickly became several performances of different shapes and sizes, not all of them conventional. We have a theatre group retelling classic myths for children, an installation of electronic music in the ghostly workshops of the Museum of Bath at Work, an open-air marching band, big percussion pieces and intimate chamber works. All this climaxes in a big, ritualistic extravaganza of choral and brass music at Bath Abbey, with 70 performers.
One formal type of concert simply wasn’t enough to do justice to the complexity and magnitude of Harry’s output and personality. I wanted to make some connections between his music and some of Harry’s favourite Tudor and Elizabethan composers, to get children involved, and invite local students to share the stage with professionals. Birtwistle’s music is often considered so complex that only a certain kind of “specialist” musician can play it, but I want to open the door marked “Danger – New Music” for young people early on.
It’s easy to label Birtwistle a “hard” composer. Some readers might remember switching on the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago for a comforting singalong only to be confronted by Panic, a sensational piece for sax, percussion and orchestra, which apparently traumatised the shires for several weeks afterwards. I remember listening to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs testily demanding to know exactly who he was writing for. But composers don’t get up in the morning wondering who can they upset today – the good ones don’t, anyway. They write what they hear, and express what needs to be expressed. Like sculptors, they patiently hew and shape their music, often following a private narrative arc from piece to piece. They write alone, slowly and diligently. Some of them, like Harry, find their voice very early on and examine their personal mythologies carefully with each new work.
The problem with “hard” classical music is that the audiences can be self-selecting, aided and abetted by some critics who imply you need a PhD before you’ll be sold a ticket. But you don’t need to control the music or fight it. If you let it happen, you’ll be surprised at how beautiful, deep and lyrical even the most challenging contemporary scores can be. Sure, Birtwistle’s written some very loud, dissonant music (let’s not panic about Panic again); but I find it exhilarating, rather than threatening, and it’s never without some kind of emotional punch. The melodic lines may be angular or stratospheric, but they’re unmistakably melodies.
The first time I worked with Harry was on his huge piano concerto Antiphonies, in 1992; I was asked to take over an extraordinarily complex score at the last minute and flown out to Paris to meet the conductor, Pierre Boulez, in IRCAM, his underground labyrinth of electronic studios. Boulez thought the piece very tough and asked me to work through the entire score with him at sight. (This, in case you’re wondering, is the stuff of musicians’ nightmares: trying to sightread Birtwistle in front of Boulez.) The orchestration (for huge forces, including a massive battery of percussion) was so dense you could’ve walked into it like an Anish Kapoor installation. I loved the music, the depth and fierceness of it; the way it went absolutely against the idea of a conventional piano concerto, and the way we all had to cling on for dear life, even in Boulez’s supremely capable hands. Those first three performances with the Philharmonia, in Paris, Antwerp and London, were formidably powerful – even if the critics weren’t crazy about it – and 18 months later we recorded it in Amsterdam, with a somewhat less friendly Dutch Radio Orchestra. There was much complaining, particularly from the string section. At the end of tense recording days, I remember weaving in between trams with Birtwistle, whipped by below-freezing winds, and diving into snug bars very late. (The recording turned out very well, despite the high-noon atmosphere.)
Complex modern music always has antecedents. I’ve never met a composer who doesn’t have a strong affinity with the past; often they’re reworking, reimagining or just plain arguing with what’s come before. You can find out a lot from the company a composer keeps, and there’s a nice line to be traced from the early English composers John Dunstable and John Dowland to Birtwistle: it’s a shared quality of mystery and melancholy, of shadows and pauses and memory. The first piece I remember hearing of Birtwistle’s and falling in love with, was Meridian, a love song scored for mezzo-soprano, chorus and ensemble. It entwines the glorious poetry of the Elizabethan lyricist Thomas Wyatt with Christopher Logue. I can remember with absolute clarity how I felt at this performance, more than 30 years ago: I was lifted up and transported, by this rapturous music, to a place where the deep past and present meet. This quality in Birtwistle’s music is a gift for programming: there’s nothing more satisfying than forging links between ancient and modern worlds, so the listener can engage with contemporary music on two levels. Birtwistle revisits rituals, myths and stories over and over again, and there’s a sense that his music is one long processional, emerging from a distant past, circling slowly round, and back again.
Finally, remember all composers are human beings. They have family lives, friends, gardens, hobbies, like you and me. Because he’s known for long, involved scores, it comes as a surprise that over the years Harry has written several brief, intimate piano pieces, which I’m getting some young students from Bath Spa University to play for him (he will be attending all the concerts). All have lovely dedications to newborn grandchildren or close friends; they’re usually brief lullabies, or tangos, or humorous little exercises in rhythm with a metronome. And even his most fearful music is intended to be playful.
Some years after Antiphonies, I premiered a huge cycle called Harrison’s Clocks, five pieces based on John Harrison’s 18th-century maritime clocks. Boy, they were hard – millions of notes, with fantastically complicated rhythms travelling at the speed of light. Many other pianists at the time quaked, turned pale and shook their heads. But everything moves on – that was more than 10 years ago, and what’s considered unplayable gradually becomes – well, not exactly easy, but possible. Harry told me that recently teenage pupils at the Purcell School had split the piece up, taken a movement each, and played them to him. On the phone the other day, sorting out some details for our Bath concerts, I mentioned to Harry I was spending the rest of the evening in the company of these fiendish Clocks. I must’ve sounded glum. “But they’re not hard!” he exclaimed in his soft Lancashire burr, trying to cheer me up. “They’re fun.” And I thought, yes, he’s right. Just because they’re complicated doesn’t mean they’re not fun.