Wednesday 16 April 2014

Birtwistle's interaction with landscape

In May, we celebrate composer Harrison Birtwistle's 80th birthday with performances in Cambridge and as part of the Barbican's Birtwistle at 80 season. In this article composer and programmer, John Woolrich explores Birtwistle's preoccupation with the English landscape in his compositions.

Harrison Birtwistle once described the Lancashire countryside in which he grew up as a kind of Arcady. His continuing interest in the natural world retains the influence of that rural upbringing: one of his most recent pieces, The Moth Requiem, is a setting of the names of extinct English moths.

As a student Birtwistle took his music to show Vaughan Williams, ‘I had a sort of Vaughan Williams forgery under my arm, (which was my music…). Vaughan Williams was modern music to me when I was a student’.  He was ‘very much part of my formative years and my awareness of what creativity was’. Birtwistle has described Melancolia 1, his lament for clarinet and strings, as his ‘Tallis Fantasia’.

Like Birtwistle, Gustav Holst’s approach to landscape, even in a miniature like his canon The Fields of Sorrow, is the impression it gives of traveling, and of time and space changing the perspective as the journey unfolds. For both Holst and Birtwistle the interaction of landscape and time has been a compositional preoccupation.

Birtwistle, like Vaughan Williams and Holst, uses landscape as a metaphor in his music. It may be a real one, like the mysterious prehistoric hill in Wiltshire that lies behind Silbury Air, or imaginary ones (rather like Holst’s Egdon Heath, another piece that has had a place in Birtwistle’s imagination). Birtwistle has a (Paul Klee-inspired) orchestral piece called An Imaginary Landscape. Another Wiltshire landscape has its own music in Yan Tan Tethera. The mythical story of Yan Tan Tethera is an explanation of the groaning sound made by the wind whistling round some sarsen stones in Wiltshire.

John Woolrich

Britten Sinfonia perform a semi-staged concert performance of Yan Tan Tethera on Thursday 29 May at the Barbican as part of Birtwistle at 80. More info

On Friday 23rd May in Cambridge and Friday 30 May at the Barbican the orchestra perform Fields of Sorrow, a programme tracing three English composers (including Birtwistle) response to landscape and national identity. More Info

John Woolrich is a distinguished composer and programmer, and a close friend and collaborator of Britten Sinfonia. In November 2014 Britten Sinfonia celebrate his 60th birthday with a special concert featuring the London premiere of his Violin Concerto. More Info

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