Personalities | Harrison Birtwistle | Modern Era | Opera
b. 1934, English
Uniquely gifted amongst contemporary English composers, Birtwistle first made a splash on the opera scene with the acclaimed Punch and Judy (1968). Centring around the murderous activities of Punch, the work distinguished itself through a lack of straightforward narrative, repeating the story several times from numerous different perspectives. Musically evoking the traditions of the Baroque era by endowing each movement with its own mood, the work drew on the traditions of Greek drama by punctuating acts of extreme violence with lullabies, duets and dances.
A number of other works followed, before Birtwistle repeated the Punch and Judy formula in spectacular fashion with The Mask of Orpheus. Completed in 1984, this highlighted the composer’s love of mythological characters and repetitive narratives, paving the way for Yan Tan Tethera (1986), a story that pits shepherds against the devil. Gawain (1991) focused on the knight of Arthurian legend, while The Second Mrs Kong (1994) was derided as pretentious by some critics, with its jazz references and characters such as King Kong, a beauty queen, Vermeer, Orpheus and Eurydice. However, The Last Supper (2000), once again focusing on the concept of ritual and the often-complex relationship between fact and fiction, signalled a welcome return to form.
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