Hallowe’en & Birtwistle

Pumpkin Bieber

A sight almost too terrifying to behold – photo by Matt McFarland

In case the pumpkins, fancy dress costumes and decorations in orange and black weren’t enough of a clue, it’s Hallowe’en today. Are you going to do anything to mark the date? How about carving a pumpkin with a favourite tune, or a picture of your favourite composer/performer? (Sadly a quick image search yielded far too many images of Justin Bieber carved into the side of a pumpkin to actually want to share the results of my search with you, but maybe you can do better).

No doubt you will be able to think of some apt music to celebrate the night when spirits from beyond the grave were thought to be at their most active. If your mind didn’t immediately leap to Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens, or Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, perhaps Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or Bernard Herrmann’s music for Psycho was the first thing that popped into your head? Certainly, as I was researching for this blogpost, I wasn’t expecting the first thing I ended up listening to to be so appropriate…

Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle – photo by MITO Settembre Musica

Harrison Birtwistle celebrated his 80th birthday this year, and to commemorate the Faculty is having a three-day festival of modern music, Secret Theatres, drawing together composers and performers in a variety of events including talks, performances, workshops and a film screening. It also includes a UK première of …between the Lines by Alexander Goehr, one of our featured Cambridge Composers. Do check out the flyer!

Despite my music degree (which happened in the dim and distant past) I must confess contemporary music is something I haven’t really delved into much, mainly because trying to perform anything still in copyright can be so expensive compared with older works. And when I’m not playing it, I don’t tend to study it, so I’d never explored much of Birtwistle’s output. These past few weeks have been a crash course (aurally speaking, sometimes literally!) in some of his oeuvre of the last 40-odd years.

So I started in the obvious place – after reading the quick biog on Wikipedia, that is! A quick keyword search on Birtwistle pulled up a variety of resources in the Pendlebury and at the UL, includings books, scores, and sound recordings. Much to my chagrin, however, as a “University staff” member of the library, I’m limited to borrowing four items at a time from the Pendlebury, although I do enjoy the 20 books for 8 weeks that the UL offers (if only I could carry them all!). Fortunately I’ve got access to Naxos Music Library, an invaluable resource if you don’t have Spotify, or even if you do, because it has a very user-friendly interface for finding a wide range of recordings (complete with programme notes!). If you haven’t already, I thoroughly recommend picking up a password from the staff at the Pendlebury Library and getting access to it.

As I flicked through the books I’d borrowed, I idly searched for Birtwistle recordings on Naxos and clicked on the top one it found: The Triumph of Time. Very atmospheric and unsettling, I thought on my first listen, and I directed my reading towards the piece itself. Universal Editions, who published Birtwistle’s works up to 1994, have a few paragraphs on the work, which took its title from Bruegel’s etching of the same name.

The Triumph of Time

The Triumph of Time — Philips Galle after Pieter Bruegel the Elder – photo by Metropolitan Museum of Art

In fact, an early LP release of the work had the etching on the inside of the gatefold cover, while this article (access for Cam students/staff only) from 2012 explores more subtle links between the two works. I particularly liked the drawing out of the use of cycles and circles in both works (the cor anglais part in the music which returns nearly unchanged, for example, while Brueghel uses a maypole and a windmill in addition to the more obvious cycles present at the foreground of the etching). As I said earlier, I thought this was an apt piece for Hallowe’en, when the clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in and we feel the passage of time and its relentless march towards the end more markedly. It was quite a pleasing discovery to think “this is a bit scary,” and for the research to suggest that might have been the intention!

It’s quite sad that there don’t seem to be many DVDs available of Birtwistle’s operatic output. The Pendlebury has the Royal Opera House production of The Minotaur (DVD.C.249), which was for me an evening well spent. It’s visually very stark, a nearly colourless beigey-greyscale save for the splashes and smears of red – there’s something a bit Schindler’s List about the production. I thought this worked really well with the music, which seemed to constantly rework the same few ideas. Of course, as more video recordings are produced, you can always recommend them for purchase by the Pendlebury. The staff are super-efficient at getting taught materials ready for courses, and when the budget permits, will endeavour to provide for the more esoteric research interests. I’m even tempted to suggest a recording of Birtwistle’s Gawain that I found, now that the little research I have accomplished thus far has whet my appetite.

Also, for those of you who might be interested in exploring Birtwistle’s music further after the festival taking place here in Cambridge, it’s worth mentioning that in December the Southbank Centre is also having a Birtwistle festival of its own, In Broken Images, which will feature the UK première of Birtwistle’s second piano concerto, Responses. Happy Birtwistling (and Happy Hallowe’en)!


About viridianarcher

Library Assistant, Pseudo Toxophilite and Erstwhile Musician.
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