Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Giant composer of a tiny new work

How to make five short minutes go a long way
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The Independent Culture

At first, Sir Harrison Birtwistle seems almost embarrassed to talk about his new work, Tenebrae David, to be premiered by London Brass at the Proms this Friday. It's not that he's ashamed of the piece; it's simply that it only lasts five minutes. What can there possibly be to say about such a short work?

Plenty, as it turns out. When he's into his stride, it's apparent that Birtwistle enjoyed the challenges that the work offered: "I recently finished a large orchestral piece, which the Cleveland Orchestra will premiere next January, and it took me a year to write. To write a short occasional piece was wonderful: when the Proms, I hadn't even started it. But I wouldn't call myself a composer if I couldn't write a five-minute piece for brass within two weeks."

It helped that Birtwistle had already written Sonance 2000, which London Brass performed as part of the millennial celebrations at St Paul's Cathedral. In St Paul's, a single note takes many seconds to decay into silence, which makes it a notoriously difficult venue for music. As Birtwistle recalls, "I started by asking the musicians to play high up in the cathedral's galleries, and I soon realised that you required very little music, and it had to be lean. Because you have to wait for the sound, the more you put in, the less you get out."

The opportunity to write the new work coincided with the death earlier this year of the art critic David Sylvester, a friend of Birtwistle's. "It was an opportunity to write a piece in his memory. The Shadow of the Night, the piece I've just written for the Cleveland Orchestra, begins with four trombones, and I've used that harmonic material to make Tenebrae David, which becomes a kind of satellite piece. David was famous for his interviews with Francis Bacon, and there is something of the Bacon 'scream' in the music that I've written."

Birtwistle has had many works performed at the BBC Proms, most famously Panic, which caused precisely that reaction among many listeners when it was performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 1995. The composer is rather proud of the fact that the BBC switchboard was jammed by thousands of complaints in the wake of the work's broadcast.

Though not as acoustically intransigent as St Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Albert Hall has its problems: "Not everything works there," Birtwistle suggests. "I remember hearing something by Brahms, it may have been the fiddle concerto, and it sounded terrible. Then the orchestra played something by Elliott Carter, and I thought how well it worked. There are certain things you can do there, and I had that in mind when I was writing this new piece: it's quite static, but I've tried to write an echo within that static position to give a definite sense of space. That relates to the Sonata pian' e forte that Giovanni Gabrieli wrote at the end of the 16th century; and the title relates to Hoquetus David by the Renaissance composer Machaut. That's a piece I've had a relationship with for a long time; I've arranged it for various combinations of instruments, and it seems to be an ongoing thing in my life. So the the new work has resonances that are like reflections, or shadows: hence the Tenebrae of the title."

The work may be short, but the creative process behind it has a richness that is echoed in the music's dense textures. That density makes stringent demands on the players charged with bringing it to life: "I've had to wait a long time for certain pieces of mine to work," Birtwistle says. "I heard my Melencolia played at the Barbican last year. It's a piece I've heard five or six times, and it was the first time that it sounded as I imagined it: the balance, the tension within it, the focus of the audience. And the audience does make a contribution. The piece, any piece, is only a piece in relation to the place it's played, the people who are playing it, and the audience that is listening."


Prom 64: London Brass performs works by Harrison Birtwistle and others: Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 (020 7589 8212), 10pm Friday