Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Music


The proposed research project is a musical and cultural analysis of the operas and music theatre of Harrison Birtwistle, one of the most experienced composers of opera in Europe, and Britain's foremost living composer. The study introduces readers to the composer's abundant sketches for the stage works, which are housed at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle in a collection that runs to several thousand pages. These sketches, which have been only briefly discussed in earlier studies, are here considered systematically for the first time. New analytical questions arise from the sketches, and they illuminate details of the composer's collaborations with his librettists in many crucial ways. For example, several hundred pages that relate to Birtwistle's collaboration with the poet David Harsent (the librettist for the opera Gawain (1991)) answer important questions posed at the time of the opera's premiere, and they suggest new ways of interpreting its central dramatic themes, in particular the idea of divided identity.

Each chapter considers a single work, or a small group of works, from a different perspective. In this regard, the book focuses on ways in which the operas differ from one another, rather than on aspects that relate them, which was a characteristic of earlier Birtwistle studies. However, a central theme that runs throughout the book - an idea that has not been fully explored in existing literature - is a dilemma that faced all post-war avant-garde composers interested in opera, namely, a conflict between the avant-garde's abstract, formalist agenda and opera's 'worldly concerns'. In Birtwistle's stage works, this is most obviously expressed by a dialectical relationship between the drama (the libretto and action) and the composer's desire for an independent, purely musical form of instrumental theatre.

The origins of this dilemma are discussed in chapter 1, which contextualises and re-examines the apparently anti-operatic mood of the 1960s and early 1970s. In chapter 2, dialectical relationships arise from the interplay of lyricism and violence in Punch and Judy (1968), which is associated with the use of parody. Chapter 3 explores spaces between Peter Zinovieff's highly prescriptive libretto for The Mask of Orpheus (1983) and Birtwistle's musical response through what, in the sketches, he terms 'lyrical formalism'. In chapter 4, on the chamber opera, or 'mechanical pastoral', Yan Tan Tethera (1984), the focus moves to a dialectical relationship between the idea of scene (or landscape) and agent (or shepherd). These terms, used in Paul Alpers's interpretation of pastoral convention, are discussed in the context of modernism, subjectivity, and Birtwistle's comparison of the work to a maze, or labyrinth.

Chapter 5 employs theories of narrative, plot and voice to explore a dialectical relationship between dramatic narrative and musical discourse in Gawain. The focus of chapter 6, on The Second Mrs Kong (1994), is an apparent disconnection between the ideas of the librettist, Russell Hoban, and the music of Birtwistle. The sketches, however, reveal that the libretto's dramatic and conceptual themes - the mediation of images through ideas and the workings of image-identification in diverse media - are explored in the music. Chapter 7 considers Bow Down (1977), The Last Supper (1999) and The Io Passion (2004). Dialectical relationships between voice and body are explored here, and the social theories of Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben, which inform Robin Blaser's libretto for The Last Supper. The final chapter focuses on The Minotaur, scheduled to be premiered in Covent Garden in April, 2008. Drawing on interviews with Birtwistle and Harsent, the librettist, this chapter returns to earlier themes in the book (most obviously the idea of a labyrinth), and documents the compositional process for what is likelyto be Birtwistle's last major opera.


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