Saturday, 2 March 2013

...An Interrupted, Panicky Black Bird

"Where's the melody? Typical modern music!", some people may cry on hearing For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot. (Hopefully not you though!) Well, melody may not be important in For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot but Harrison Birtwistle is a composer whose music is usually very much driven by melody. 

Please take a listen to the subtle and finespun Night's Black Bird of 2004. This is a slow-moving, mysterious orchestral score, conveying the gloom of night with lots of low-register grumbling but contrasting this with evocations of birdsong on high clarinets and piccolos. The work has a strong flow of melody and, despite its dark tone, falls easily on the ear. This flow of melody is some way from being the kind of melody associated with "nasty modern music"; yes, it may not be "sweetly melodic" but it is memorably and beautiful in its melodic contours, with (perhaps) something of Berg about it. Behind the work lies a song by John Dowland...
Flow, my tearsfall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

...and an engraving by Albrecht Dürer called Melancholia I:

The music's mixture of grace and heft makes for a compelling listen, from its initial quiet growl on double basses to the final muted stroke on tubular bell. 

I love Night's Black Bird as much as I love For O, for O, the Hobby-horse Is Forgot and they each show very different sides to the composer. 

If you want to hear the lyrical, melodic side of Birtwistle at its most open, the smaller chamber works are the best place to begin. ...An Interrupted Endless Melody for oboe and piano, written in memory of the oboist Janet Craxton, is a particularly approachable example. As it's another of my favourite Birtwistle pieces, it's a pleasure to share it with you.

This gentle and refined piece pretty does what it says on the tin, doesn't it? It sings a long, elegiac oboe melody but divides it between three short movements, each with its own distinctive piano part. The "endless melody" itself is absolutely beautiful, isn't it? Were you expecting that of Birtwistle?

Perhaps what you were expecting was something much louder and fiercer - something like the "notorious" Panic for solo saxophone, drum kit and wind band which "scandalised the world" at its 1995 première at the BBC Last Night of the Proms. I remember being a bit scandalised myself at the time. What does it sound like now, 18 years on? Is it as scary and cacophonous as it's reputation suggests? Well, listening to it for the first time since that famous Last Night reveals a much better piece than I remembered. It's never going to be a favourite of mine but it's wild and fun and has more than a bit of free jazz and rock about it, with free-wheeling, improvisatory-sounding melodies. Panic can be abrasive at times, driving on deliriously, but is far from completely lacking lyricism. It evokes the old priapic Pan of ancient Greece, coarse and terrifying but also sensual and heady.

It should make your head spin - for one reason or another!

No comments:

Post a Comment