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A blast of Birtwistle
By Norman Lebrecht / October 14, 2000Our greatest living composer has returned from self-imposed exile in France to turn his fierce intelligence on the parlous state of the arts in this country. As his latest work receives its UK premiere, he talks to Norman Lebrecht about Tony Blair, Melvyn Bragg and his other cultural enemies
ONE evening at the Ivy, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, our foremost living composer, was dining with Lord Gowrie, the former Arts Council chairman, when the Blairs were ushered in to their usual table. "Would you like to meet them?" offered Gowrie, an old-school Tory of cross-bench courtesies. "Only Harry, you must promise me not to harangue Tony about the arts."
Birtwistle growled assent and was taken over to the eats of power. Blair had plainly never heard of him, but Cherie knew his name from her time as a Sadler's Wells board member and even mentioned a couple of his operas.
No sooner had hands been shaken, than Birtwistle pitched in. "Now listen here, Prime Minister, you've got to do something about music teaching in schools. It's digraceful. And the orchestras need more money. And another thing . . ."
Gowrie, I'm told, was mortified and Blair for once dumbstruck. "What was that about?" he was heard gasping as the steaming composer was steered back to his baked Alaska, simmering with force majeure.
Moral indignation is the essence of the man. For years a laconic recluse on a remote French hilltop, Birtwistle, at 66, has moved closer to the centre of affairs, settling - four years ago - in civilised Wiltshire and getting involved with London orchestras and institutions. "I'm now part of the establishment," he grins, "but my music isn't."
Watching as the culture crumbles, he cannot stay silent. A silver-furry man with a dry Lancastrian wit and hooded blue eyes, he wears the look of a small creature startled in the undergrowth, simultaneously fierce and self-protective. When I ask for his version of the Blair confrontation, Birtwistle burrows into his wintry beard. "Oh, I can't deal with that," he scuttles, "I'm a composer: I don't have anecdotes."
This is classic Birtwistle equivocation. What he does for a living is intensely private and frustratingly protracted. He once told me it can take him three days to convert an idea into half a page of music, by which time he has lost interest in the idea and has to stalk the lonely hills to find the next one.
As a composer, however, he has a mission to put the world to rights and, particularly, to make sure the musical profession is kept in good nick - hence the flare-up at Blair. His rage, seldom personal, simmers constantly on a concealed flame.
We are sitting in the bar of the Waldorf Hotel, unwinding over single malts in the so-called Happy Hour. Birtwistle has spent the day teaching at King's College, London, and the previous week on a campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He resents every minute spent away from composing and has begun to question the value of teaching anyone to write music.
"What teaching does is raise the level of the mediocre," he sighs. "State subsidy does the same, if there's not enough of it. If you have at the centre a first-rate orchestra, properly funded, then everything else - folk-dancing, yoghurt weaving - comes into focus and flourishes. But if you neglect the centre, the rest falls apart."
This is dangerous talk, the kind that would get most of us charged with metropolitan elitism and sentenced to 12 months' community service in a Lottery-funded regional arts centre. Birtwistle, however, has impeccably rural credentials, risen from English scrubland and never forsaking his roots.
Raised on a poor farm outside Accrington, he was gripped as a boy by an idea of Greek drama and the wail of a reedy pipe. He played clarinet in a town orchestra whose instruments were donated by a mill owner. The sound they made was painful, but music was an active part of the lives of ordinary people. Now, he laments, they slump in front of the telly and can't play a note.
The Henry Watson Music Library, where he devoured scores as a student, was almost shut down last year by vandals at Manchester Council in a cost-cutting exercise. It's enough to make a shy composer lose his rag.
"I believe we have in this country the best musicians in the world," says Birtwistle, "but we don't have the best orchestras because we don't give them the money to rehearse. It's spread too thin. So second-rate becomes good enough, and we don't know the difference any more.
"Look at Peter Hall - forced to work in America [because the Arts Council refused him a grant]. There's hardly any justification for the National Theatre to exist any more. The stuff they do, they could put it all on in the West End. It's a cultural attitude - it's Blairism, isn't it?"
More than the global plague of dumbing down, it is the British levelling down of cultural distinctions that drives him wild. "Have you seen what Melvyn Bragg does?" he demands. "He's meant to be this Mr Culture and he makes a programme about Joan Collins. He's a disgrace, he should give up."
Classic FM is "bloody rubbish" and what Paul McCartney is doing with orchestras is intolerable. "It's total arrogance for someone like McCartney to turn his hand to writing a piece for chorus and orchestra. It's musical nonsense. Students would fail their PhD if they submitted that. I'd fail them for stylistic inconsistency and musical illiteracy. That this sort of thing can be taken seriously is a facet of where we have gone wrong."
With six operas to his name - the latest acclaimed in Berlin at Easter and about to break at Glyndebourne - Birtwistle could be forgiven for settling into comfortable seniority and donning the vacant cloak of Grand Old Man of British Music. He has outstripped every composer of his generation and towers over the rising crop like a sunflower in a field of daisies.
Twenty years ago, the New Grove dictionary called him "the most forceful and uncompromisingly original British composer". Seeing The Last Supper in Berlin this spring, The Daily Telegraph opera critic Rupert Christiansen marvelled: "Birtwistle is still growing, still changing, a composer of great stature and integrity." One German critic observed that the opera was "a natural musical and theatrical heir to the greatest 20th-century works exploring major Judeo-Christian themes".
Birtwistle has been knighted for his music (though he was tempted to refuse the title and, when asked about the Lords, says: "You'll never get me in there"), and, while his work is seldom easy on the ear, it is never abstruse. He shunned the ascetic orthodoxies of serialism and pursued an elusive vision that dawned in his boyhood imagination - a form of art that is often noisy, always emotional and never less than dramatic. The neo-romantic oiks who famously heckled Gawain at Covent Garden in 1994 drew scant response from the audience it had just stunned. Panic, at the Last Night of the Proms the following year, frightened no horses.
Birtwistle is a convenient bogeyman for cultural levellers and those who take their music lukewarm. The rest of us, who like it hot, find spice and ceremony in every piece he writes, and tend to leave the hall whistling a theme that remains tantalisingly just out of reach.
His latest opera formed in his mind as a wordless idea before he knew what it was about. "I'm more at home in matters of form than of content," he says. "Heading to the Strand in a taxi one day, I passed a film called The Last Supper and thought, 'That's not bad . . .' and that's where it started."
The movie was a typical Hollywood tale about a group of people who get invited to dinner and are murdered, one by one. "I went to see it. Wasn't any good," shrugs Birtwistle. What he sought was an echo of his Methodist upbringing, a hint of childhood hymnody structured within a lifelong fascination for ecclesiatical architecture.
"Do you believe in God?" I wonder.
"Dunno," says Birtwistle. "Mind your own business."
No composer, to my knowledge, has ever made an opera of the dawning moment of Christianity and Birtwistle has taken care to avoid sacrilege. "The big issue is Judas," he feels. "Christianity is supposed to be a religion of love and forgiveness, but what are they going to do when Judas comes? And what do you do with Jesus on stage? If Judas had not betrayed Christ, there would have been no Christianity. That's the sort of thing I find challenging."
Not for the first time, he has written a score without violins, rich in low rumblings and ritualistic suggestion. "I don't know if it's an opera," he muses. "Maybe it's a Passion or something. The thing is, music is capable of taking on big subjects and this is about as big as there is."
He almost stormed out of Glyndebourne when they proposed coupling the two-hour Supper with Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins, an act of cultural levelling that left the composer speechless. Nothing can melt his principled resolve in defence of his music.
He stands apart from the new flight of British composers, "who seem very sure of themselves, like an imago, a butterfly that enters the world fully formed." Perhaps envying their assurance, Birtwistle says he is "still trying to find a way how to do it". He speaks of having "unrealised dreams, and what is unrealised was unrealised when I started". Few composers have ever lived so fully within their own imagination, yet Birtwistle has always kept his windows open, nourishing a taste for modern art and proper cricket. David Sylvester, the art critic, is a close friend, and Mike Brearley, the former England captain, attends all his operas.
He has never seen the Blairs again since that night at the Ivy, but I rather suspect he will be giving them and their successors a hard time. Sir Harrison Birtwistle has fought and won his own fight. Now he stands and fights for England. "You know," he murmurs, "if they took all the subsidy away, we would still have a culture in England. And we have got to make sure it's a culture worth having."
Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]