David Beard has written the first comprehensive survey of Harrison Birtwistle's music for opera and theater. Birtwistle is still writing prolifically at 78 (he turns 79 on July 15, 2013), but Beard includes all his musical dramas through "The Corridor" (2009). Only four of these works have been recorded, and only one on DVD.
I found his analysis of "Punch and Judy" (1967), "The Second Mrs Kong" (1994), and "The Last Supper" (2000) to be the most revealing, interesting, and rewarding, but others may certainly find other sections of this 469-page book to be equally valuable depending on their interests.
Here is the list of works covered by chapter:
1) early works
"Down By the Greenwood Side" (1968-9) libretto by Michael Nyman
2) "Punch and Judy" (1967) libretto by Stephen Pruslin
3) "The Mask of Orpheus" (1984) libretto by Peter Zinovieff
4) "Yan Tan Tethera" (1986) libretto by Tony Harrison
5) "Gawain" (1990) libretto by David Harsent
6) "The Second Mrs Kong" (1994) libretto by Russell Hoban
7) "Bow Down" (1977) libretto by Tony Harrison
"The Io Passion" (2004) libretto by Birtwistle and workshop
"The Corridor" (2009) libretto by David Harsent
8) "The Last Supper" (2000) libretto by Robin Blaser
"The Minotaur" (2008) libretto by David Harsent
Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Stephen Pruslin formed a musical group in 1967 called the Pierrot Players, after the famous piece by Schoenberg. The group didn't last for long, but Beard argues that it is a clue to a major influence on "Punch and Judy." Pulcinella, which was Anglicized to Punchinello, and hence Punch, was a stock character in commedia dell'arte, along with Pierrot, and thus there is a significant overlap between "Pierrot Lunaire" and Punch of "Punch and Judy." Pruslin's libretto draws on the 1828 source text, the first script for the popular Punch and Judy plays, written by John Collier.
I do not typically gain much insight from musicological close readings of scores, but Beard reveals that the piece uses a symmetrical but disguised chromatic wedge throughout, which culminates and becomes audible during the "Black Wedding Procession" in Punch's nightmare. The work is obviously an example of the grotesque, and I found Beard's analysis of "the subversive Punch" in working-class satirical performances to be a crucial point. A high point of the music is Judy's da capo passion aria, which Beard argues is a parody of opera. The character Choregos can be seen to symbolize opera, and hence the murder of Choregos by Punch can be seen as an expression of Attali's view that "music is a simulacrum of ritual murder" (72). Attali also said that "noise is murder," and that opera represents the domestication of music.
On this interpretation, Pruslin and Birtwistle are, in their opera of grotesque brutality, rebelling against the domestication of music. This is all very interesting and revealing, but Beard does not shed any light on the central mystery of Birtwistle's "Punch and Judy" -- why Polly accepts the serial killer Punch in the end.
Despite eighty pages of analysis, Beard does not reveal anything of interest about the epic "The Mask of Orpheus" beyond what I already knew, that it is Birtwistle's longest and most complex opera, and was many years in the making. The chapter on "Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral" includes a fascinating piece of background on Birtwistle. After a youth spent wandering the wild woods and fields of his father's farm at Accrington, near Manchester, a gigantic power station was built nearby. Birtwistle describes the massive chimneys as "God's boots," dwarfing the house and violating the landscape.
Beard systematically discusses the development of the music and the libretto for each work. In the case of "Gawain," the poet David Harsent drew on the 14th century narrative poem. He transforms the Green Knight, who takes on the dual nature of both Green Man, representing the wild, untamed outdoors, and the moral values of the society -- its paternal and civic authority. Harsent transforms Morgan le Fay from a marginal and evil character in the original to one both central and virtuous. The opera has strong links to Wagner, and is informed specifically by both "Gotterdammerung" and "Parsifal."
Beard conveys the core of the drama -- Gawain's realization that he is not the Hero of the story -- as an exemplification of the conflict between the Individual and Universal Interests, a key post-Enlightenment dilemma. I have not read the entire libretto, but it is far from clear to me that I would have extracted that insight.
"The Second Mrs Kong" has to be based on one of the most outrageously creative ideas used for any opera. In short, it is a romance between two images, the image of King Kong, and the image of Pearl from the famous Vermeer painting. Modern technology should surely permit it to be staged and recorded for DVD! Hoban sees Kong as the idea of being "wild and wordless, lonely child of all the world" (242). Beard brilliantly utilizes Lacan to analyze the meaning of the opera. Lacan's mirror stage is based on the imaginary, as opposed to the symbolic or the real. The mirror stage involves alienation from the image and desire to be whole with the reflection, but this is unattainable. Kong and Pearl meet through a mirror, and thus the Lacanian analysis fits perfectly. The drama is driven by the desire for union, but this desire can never be satisfied.
Musically, the work uses 4-note shapes "obsessively" throughout (269), a perfect fit for the accordion, which gives TSMK a distinctive timbre. A brilliant twist is the character of Anubis whose name in the opera is "Death of Kong," who says "the idea of Kong is that he's dead." Clearly the story of Kong and Pearl is related to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, so central to Birtwistle's music, and at the end of the opera the voices of Kong, Pearl, Orpheus, and Eurydice sing of their memories of love and desire for union -- in Lacanian terms, the recall of an imaginary order (275).
The libretto for "The Last Supper" (2000) is by American poet Robin Blaser. It conveys a stoic liberal humanism as it addresses the question of "how to reconcile Christ's teachings and the notion of community with humanity's history of war, genocide, inequality, and racism," and prominently features the nightmare image of the Messiah approaching in a tank. Birtwistle's music uses a 35-piece orchestra with no violins. Christ is represented by "the wind" -- glissandi in cellos.
Blaser sets out to salvage Judas from anti-Semitic persecution. According to the librettist, the opera's fundamental question "is set by Christ: who is the betrayer, and what has been betrayed?" Valid answers include both the betrayal of Judas since he merely carried out God's will, and the betrayal of Christ's message of love by the Church, with its hubris and complicity in wars and other crimes. Blaser is influenced by Dante, who abhorred materialism, religious cynicism, and political opportunism.
The Ghost (not Holy Ghost) is a female character who represents the spirit of the modern, secular age. There is no message of conversion or resurrection in the libretto. Blaser says he sees our time as characterized by "a sense of breakage," and says "the great belief system of Christianity is one of the things that has been broken." Blaser, author of The Holy Forest, is influenced by two writers of the Left: Jean-Luc Nancy's Inoperative Community, and Giorgio Agamben's The Coming Community. Both are influenced in turn by Heidegger's concept of dasein -- being-in-the-world.
I have become fascinated by Birtwistle's music in recent years, and it is frustrating that more of these works have not been recorded. (Apparently NMC plans to reissue "Gawain" soon.) While much of the musicological close reading is lost on me, I find much that is valuable in Beard's book as someone who appreciates the music. I give it four stars rather than five merely to indicate that you, like me, might find it of use more as a reference work than as a book to read straight through for pleasure.
(verified library loan)