So Farewell Then Sir Harrison Birtwhistle

When Sir Harrison Birtwistle was 80 an article appeared on the Guardian‘s leader page praising the old controversialist.  Sir Harrison was apparently a “profoundly British composer“, perhaps even “a natural successor to composers such as Elgar, Holst and Delius . . .as powerfully distinctive as that of any composer alive today“.

It won’t surprise my friends and enemies to learn that I am not a Birtwistle fan. I tried listening to Earth Dances again when this article appeared, and, after the marvellously effective opening low brass and percussion notes had begun to blend and criss-cross each-other I found myself thinking, “this is actually quite boring”. It took about a minute and a half.  I felt as if I were being beaten over the head with a rubber truncheon.  For me, Birtwistle has never learned that it is not what you say – everyone has something interesting to say, and most of us can come up with the profound from time to time – it is how you say it. Art is a mediation of experience, and we won’t persist with it if it doesn’t mediate in a way which generates pleasure.

But this is of course just a personal view, even if it’s one which is widely shared in Britain. The Guardian‘s comparison with Holst, Elgar, Butterworth, RVW is instructive.  I have been a musician for about fifty years, soberingly, and in truth I have never once heard anyone say, “Did you hear that piece of Birtwistle’s on the radio last week?” or “I’m playing some Birtwistle at the moment”, or “I really like that piece of Birtwistle’s”.  And of course I couldn’t whistle anything of his, nor have I ever met anyone who could. Neither have I ever met anyone in all this time in and around the profession who was interested in Birtwistle’s music.

What was really striking about Birtwistle is that, notwithstanding that the Guardian‘s leader writer (probably Andrew Clements) thought he was of a similar stature to Elgar et al, he is almost totally absent from British musical life. He is our most celebrated recent composer, but almost no-one involved in the business (whether as a listener, and amateur or a professional player) pays any attention to what he does. And this despite the many hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money that, over the years, has been pushed in his direction (much of it via the Royal Opera House, the biggest recipient of Arts Council money in the UK).

In the year after Elgar’s First Symphony was premiered it received over one hundred performances in Britain.  That’s because people like Elgar’s music and were willing to pay to hear it. Other of his pieces have entered the national consciousness, so that even now most British people will recognise Nimrod or the Pomp and Circumstance marches; and those with an interest in classical music will have listened hundreds of times to or performed the symphonies, the Cello Concerto, Gerontius, the Serenade for Strings and the Introduction and Allegro (I could of course go on).

The same is not quite true of Holst and Delius, but it’s much truer of them than it is of Birtwistle. The Planets is a work which every musician, like it or not, recognises as a ubiquitous part of the cultural fabric of British life. The same goes for the Tallis Fantasia and The Lark Ascending with RVW.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, Birtwistle has ever written has come remotely close to entering the consciousness of the British people. His music hasn’t even entered the consciousness of those charged professionally with the task of delivering it to the public. I once asked a professional orchestral player if she had ever played any Birtwhistle? She thought she must have; after all, she’d been in the business for twenty years. But if so she couldn’t remember anything about it.

How then have we got to the stage where, despite this strange absence from British musical life, Birtwistle can merit leaders in the papers on his 80th birthday and glowing obituaries now he has gone?

The short answer is that the broadsheets are not short of the kind of people who admire people like Birtwistle; but there’s more to it than that.

Birtwistle was very fortunate when, in 1959, William Glock was made controller of Radio 3 and decided that the cow-pat school of British music was outdated. What the public really needed, Glock thought, was a good dose of European total serialism. This rejection of the politer art of the old school tied in rather well with the working class revivalism – and desire to scandalise the bourgeouisie – which followed Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and it must have helped that Birtwistle was a Northener from Accrington.

At any rate Birtwistle was taken up by Glock, as was Peter Maxwell Davies, and their two careers flourished accordingly. Birtwistle in particular became a poster boy for the kind of “challenging” and “edgy” art whose advocates felt divided them from the safe and suburban Mr and Mrs Concert Goer, arriving in a coach party from Frodsham. “But it hasn’t got a tune“, these tedious provincials wailed, bolstering the hipsters’ sense (already pretty strong) that they themselves were breathing an altogether more rareified atmosphere.

So Birtwistle over the years came to be not just a purveyor of music that almost no-one wanted to listen to, but a symbol (for both sides of the argument) of the idea that avant gardism was not so much paving the way for the masses to follow as constituting an end in itself, a kind of super-art that only a certain tiny percentage of society was intelligent enough to “get”.

Of course the fact that the masses were paying for their pleasure did not trouble the elite (nor, apparently, Sir Harrison).

So actually Birtwistle was really a British composer only in the sense that the British have paid for him to become what he was. He might be more accurately described as a European composer, firstly because his music owes much more to the European influences which took root on the continent and which, pre-Glock, British composers regarded with some suspicion, and secondly because the idea that a self-appointed elite should sit at the apex of a system, political or cultural, is one which has more parallels in recent European history than in Britain, with its long democratic traditions.

Ironically then, Birtwistle’s eminence speaks much more eloquently about British cultural life in the second half of the twentieth century than his music ever has to British people.  In this sense, and only this, is Birtwistle “a profoundly British composer“. His pre-eminence tells us something important about British society.

This is not an argument against public subsidy in art. Still less is it an argument that what the masses like must by definition be good. It involves instead a recognition that between Birtwistle at one end of the continuum and Karl Jenkins at the other there exists a great body of composers whose music the public might have liked if it had had a chance to hear it. It says that while it may be legitimate to use public money to pay for something for a bit to see if it catches on, there comes a point when the public’s distaste becomes clear.

That point was reached with Birtwistle many decades ago.  But, as so often, the people who dish our money out knew better.


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