Thursday, 28 February 2013

For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot

Few works demonstrate the dramatic power of Harrison Birtwistle's instrumental rituals than the stunning For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot for six percussionists from 1976. It's a piece you need to see as well as hear.

Taking its title from Hamlet ("..he shall suffer not thinking on, with the hobby-horse, whose epitaph is, 'For O, for O, the hobby-horse is forgot."), it conjures up a dumb show analogous to the "play within a play" within Shakespeare's drama. A King and a Queen, two of the percussionists placed at either end of the stage, direct the other four percussionists, placed centrally as a group, in an elaborately choreographed "ceremony", all the players making use of their sticks for mime as well as for music. The effect is not  remotely gimmicky. As for the music, well, the play of pulses from the unpitched percurcussion, as so often with Birtwistle, gathers pace and complexity as it proceeds, reaching an extraordinarily exciting central climax, before returning to something starker towards the end. 

For me, this masterpiece is a riveting and beautiful experience. In some ways it has the character of an Eastern ritual, or Chinese opera; in other ways it's thoroughly modernist - a mingling of ancient and modern that Xenakis, the composer Birtwistle often seems closest to, was also able to achieve. You might want to compare Birtwistle's For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot with the Greek's glorious Pleiades. You will surely hear the similarities in sensibility between the two composer. Birtwistle is not copying Xenakis though. The Xenakis was written in 1978, two years after the Birtwistle.

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