Arts: The bluffer's guide to Birtwistle

On the eve of a major South Bank retrospective of the composer's work, Malcolm Hayes constructs an acrostic portrait of the man the Hecklers love to hate

SIR. New-music groupies have long been notorious for striding around London's concert halls haranguing all and sundry about "Harry" (despite the fact that most of them have never even met him). Birtwistle's recent knighthood has necessitated a readjustment, as in a conversation reportedly overheard at the Royal Opera House during the 1994 revival of his opera Gawain. Covent Garden habitue: "You must be absolutely thrilled, Sir Harrison." Pause. Birtwistle (flatly and without rancour): "I don't know what on earth you're talking about."

IRASCIBILITY. A quality widely misattributed to the famously laconic Lancastrian. "Harry" is simply more interested in getting on with his work than in hanging around foyers talking flannel about it. While his long-standing reputation for gruffness wasn't always undeserved (a fellow critic once compared the task of interviewing him to that of trying to mate pandas), age - he turns 62 in July - has brought a likeable mellowing. Of the man, that is, not the music.

RITUAL. An essential component in Birtwistle's music from his earliest works. It often relates to the formal structures of ancient Greek tragedy (see Tragoedia and Exodos below). Birtwistle has said that a sizeable part of his education as a composer was provided by the then newly published Penguin Classics.

HECKLERS. OK, let's get them over with. This self-appointed caucus materialised around the revival of Gawain at Covent Garden in 1994. The main dramatis personae were two hitherto obscure composers (Frederick Stocken? Keith Burstein? No, nobody else has ever heard of them either) who had decided to demonise Birtwistle and all his works as the most execrable examples of the supposed "establishment" hegemony of musical modernism. High on the oxygen of publicity (courtesy of the Evening Standard, Newsnight and other such culturally challenged outlets), the Hecklers managed to raise a few boos before being drowned out by the first-night applause. Birtwistle, of course, rose above it all - apart from allowing himself a brief "V for Victory" sign as he took his curtain call.

ARCHES. Birtwistle was born in 1934 in the Lancashire town of Accrington, whose skyline is dominated by an impressive railway viaduct with 17 arches. This structure made its way into the vast and complex iconography of his opera The Mask of Orpheus (see below). Orpheus, in a dream, makes his journey into the Underworld across 17 arches, each marking the progress of his ill-starred attempt to reclaim Euridice.

RAASAY. Everyone knows that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle's sometime colleague in the so-called "Manchester School", spends much of his life on the Orkney isle of Hoy. What's less well known is that, during the Seventies, Birtwistle himself lived with his family on the remote, beautiful and relentlessly rain-drenched island of Raasay in the Inner Hebrides. A boat called once a week with supplies. For Birtwistle, the exoticism of the location wasn't the point. It was a good place to get some work done.

REFRAIN. Another essential device in Birtwistle's music (see Ritual above and Repetition below). His acknowledged Opus 1, written in 1957, is a wind quintet entitled Refrains and Choruses.

INDUSTRIOUSNESS. Truly formidable. To date Birtwistle has composed over 80 works, many of them large, and their consistent strength is a phenomenon in itself. Allowing duds to reach the public ear isn't Birtwistle's style. He once withdrew an early work from a scheduled performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, no less, because he wasn't satisfied with it.

SECRET THEATRE. The work for chamber ensemble after which the South Bank's imminent retrospective is named, and with which it concludes (on 4 May, in a newly choreographed version for the Richard Alston Dance Company and the London Sinfonietta). Everything in a Birtwistle work, whether staged or not, is conceived as at least latent theatre. In Secret Theatre itself, some of the players move about between different points on the concert platform to emphasise their fluctuating solo roles within the ensemble.

ORPHEUS, THE MASK OF. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's fully staged performance of this massive and magnificent "lyric tragedy" in three acts, which opens the South Bank festival on Friday, will be the work's first complete performance since its premiere run at English National Opera in 1986. (Stagings since planned at the Vienna State Opera and elsewhere have foundered owing to the work's daunting technical complexities and related production costs.) In music encompassing extremes of apocalyptic power and keening lyrical incantation, the various versions and strands of the Orphic myth are presented and interwoven in a pluralistic, non-linear way (see Repetition below). In places the result is so complex that two conductors are required. The title alludes both to the use of masks in ancient Greek theatre and to the theatrical pageantry of the Elizabethan masque (as in Shakespeare's The Tempest). Incidentally, Friday's performance is being staged by Stephen Langridge, son of the tenor Philip Langridge, who sang Orpheus I in the 1986 premiere.

NENIA: THE DEATH OF ORPHEUS. Nenia is a rare term fusing lullaby and lament (as in Brahms's Nanie for chorus and orchestra). Written in 1970, this small masterpiece shares some of The Mask of Orpheus's subject-matter and the same librettist (Peter Zinovieff), but the musical material is different. The scoring is for the nonconformist combination of piano, percussion and three bass clarinets (see below). Meanwhile a single soprano voice, moving between speech, semi-speech and singing, virtuosically combines the roles of Orpheus, Euridice and narrator. Nenia will be given a new staging at the South Bank by the Richard Alston Dance Company (on 4 May).

BASS CLARINET. An archetypal Birtwistle instrument. He was himself a clarinettist before selling his instruments and committing himself to composition, and the various species of clarinet play a prominent role in many of his scores. Below the orchestral Plimsoll line he prefers the contrabass clarinet to the contrabassoon, observing (with reason) that you can actually make out the pitch of the notes it's playing.

IRCAM. Acronym of the Institut de Recherche et de Co-ordination Acoustique/Musique, the centre for computer-generated music established by Pierre Boulez beneath the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Birtwistle spent several months there in 1983, collaborating with the late Barry Anderson on the electronic representation of the Voice of Apollo in The Mask of Orpheus. The result remarkably recreates in sonic terms the concept of the deus ex machina of Greek theatre.

REPETITION. A standard musical concept applied, in Birtwistle's music, in a non-standard way. One metaphor might be that of walking about a town and returning repeatedly to fixed landmarks (eg the town square), which thus appear familiar and yet, owing to their rediscovery from varying angles and directions, also different. Add that, in Birtwistle, presentation of these events can also be simultaneous (which is why some call him a musical "Cubist"). In The Mask of Orpheus, musical and dramatic events recur in this way, so that in one scene we see two different versions of the death of Euridice enacted simultaneously. And, in fact, the main characters of the opera are portrayed throughout in triplicate, eg as Orpheus Man (by a masked singer), Orpheus Hero (by a masked mime) and Orpheus Myth (by a huge puppet, plus amplified singer offstage). Again, any or all of these manifestations can appear at once.

TRAGOEDIA. This quintessential early-ish Birtwistle work for chamber ensemble, composed in 1965, recreates in abstract instrumental terms the normal structures of Greek theatre (see Exodos below) with a string quartet on the left, wind quintet on the right, and a harp (Orpheus' lyre?) mediating between them. The title literally means "goat-dance".

WAGNER. Birtwistle finds the composer interesting and has even visited the festival theatre at Bayreuth to see a performance of the Ring cycle. (Wagner, too, was interested in aspects of Greek theatre - the Festspielhaus's single-tiered auditorium is actually designed on the ancient model.) Birtwistle especially likes Gotterdammerung, the last link in the Ring, whose presentation of the implacable final stages of a pre-determined tragedy is strikingly Aeschylus-like in tone.

IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE, AN. Another idiosyncratic Birtwistle creation (and title). The scoring of its single movement is for a bizarre "orchestra" of 12 brass instruments, eight double-basses and four percussionists. The interaction of five distinct blocks of musical material generates the structure .

SLOW FRIEZE. Another title that could be applied - as could Refrains and Choruses, or Ritual Fragment, or Secret Theatre - to many another Birtwistle work. This particular one, scored for piano and chamber ensemble, has been commissioned by the South Bank and will be premiered by Joanna MacGregor and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Markus Stenz, on 26 April (Ritual Fragment is also on the programme).

TUBA. In Birtwistle, even individual instruments enact latent dramatic roles - for example, the bass tuba, which has been liberated by the composer from its usual diet of solitary and subterranean drudgery. (I have a private theory that each of Birtwistle's tuba parts is a self-contained "goat- dance" - see Tragoedia above - whatever the other instruments are getting up to.) The score of Gawain features three tubas in eructating trinity. The instrument is also associated with Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the Underworld in ancient Egyptian mythology, who features among the ad hoc iconography of Birtwistle's Russell Hoban-scripted opera The Second Mrs Kong. A satellite work is The Cry of Anubis for tuba and orchestra, to be played in the South Bank series by Owen Slade and the London Philharmonic under Franz Welser-Most (1 May).

LOT. The region of central France where Birtwistle and family lived for many years, after he found a house for sale there while working at IRCAM. He liked the place, although, as he says, it rained there in the winter almost as much as it had on Raasay.

EXODOS. Part of the formal structure of ancient Greek theatre, closing each performance, as the Parados had opened it; in between would come various permutations of Strophe, Antistrophe, Stasimon and Episodion (see Tragoedia above). The late Olivier Messiaen's music also draws on these dramatic archetypes, although less rigorously than Birtwistle's. In The Mask of Orpheus, the Parados presents the birth of Orpheus, presided over by his father, the god Apollo, while the Exodos marks the eventual decay of the Orpheus myth itself.

n `Secret Theatres' opens at the South Bank Centre on Friday with `The Mask of Orpheus', and continues with concerts and related events on 16, 19, 26, 29 April and 1, 2, 4 May. Tickets and information: 0171-960 4242

n `Secret Theatres' on the Internet: the SBC's web site, with sound and video animation and interviews with Birtwistle and other leading figures in the festival, can be viewed on http://www.illumin.co.uk/birtwistle

n A live recording of the Royal Opera's 1994 `Gawain' is released next week on Collins Classics 70412

The mask of a modern Orpheus - man, myth or hero? Portrait of Sir Harrison Birtwistle by his son Adam, an exhibition of whose work will be at the Delphina Studio, 50 Bermondsey St, SE1, 29 April-12 May

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