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My reaction of hearing Harrison Birtwistle’s music for the first time ever (The Triumph of Time and Punch and Judy, in the early 1990s) was: ‘Can music get any uglier? Isn’t the composer a bit tone-deaf?’.


Since then, as my youthful arrogance and ignorance were wearing off, I came to understand and appreciate Birtwistle’s music more and more. In 2003, when I was a spnm shortlisted composer, Birtwistle (or so I was told) chose my wind quintet to be included in a concert at the Huddersfield Festival of which his Refrains and Choruses was to be the focus. In a pre-concert talk, I was asked by the host about my ‘secret’ of making the alto flute heard amid the busy texture in a particular movement. As I was rambling away nervously, clever words swirling in my heads and trying to sound sophisticated and clever, Sir Harry suddenly broke me off and said: ‘Raymond, you are allowed to leave some dirt in your music!’. I was lost for words. I was lost for words because of a moment of revelation – it is not cleverness that gives a piece of music its heart and soul; it is the earthiness and rawness that matter. There are things beyond analysis. In that sense, the music of Birtwistle and Janáček have a lot in common.


I went to the general rehearsal of The Minotaur at Covent Garden last Saturday. It really blew me away. It is a long way away from the Birtwistle of Punch and Judy or The Mask of Orpheus. In fact, I found Birtwistle’s music has been becoming more and more lyrical since The Second Mrs Kong. The opening of the new opera really reminded me of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.


Once again, as in The Second Mrs Kong, the cimbalom plays an important part in the orchestra, alongside Ariadne’s obbligato saxophone. In the entire duration of the opera, sonic wonders never ceased (and I can’t wait to see the full score). The last scene of the opera was doubtless the most moving moment in Birtwistle’s entire output.


First night is tonight. Go see it if you can. At the end of the day, who’s afraid of Birtwistle?

August 2020
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