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Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre

Birtwistle book coverA new book by Dr David Beard presents the first definitive study of Harrison Birtwistle’s music for the opera house and theatre, from his smaller-scale works to the full-length operas.

A leading figure in contemporary music, Birtwistle has six major operas, around eight music dramas, and a body of incidental music to his name during a career spanning more than forty years.

Dr Beard’s book – Harrison Birtwistle’s Operas and Music Theatres – draws on a substantial body of previously undocumented primary sources and goes beyond previous studies of the composer’s output to include works from 2000 onwards. While researching, Dr Beard studied well over 4,000 pages of sketches and drafts, and around 2,500 sides of unpublished drafts and annotated typescripts of libretti by different authors. Musical manuscripts consulted varied from verbal jottings, through tables of pitches, charts with numbers or graphs, to skeleton and continuity drafts.

Providing an unprecedented insight into Birtwistle’s collaborations, the study is also informed by conversations with the composer, audio recordings of workshops and accounts by those involved in the more recent stage works.

Discussing the work, Dr Beard said: “This study is concerned to not only reflect the importance of Birtwistle’s stage works by examining them in some detail but also to convey their varied musical and intellectual worlds. The book is motivated by a belief that the stage works – in which instrumental and physical drama, song and narrative are combined – demand interpretation from multiple, inter-disciplinary perspectives.

"Each chapter is guided by a central question: what is the relationship between the genesis and abstract musical processes of Birtwistle’s operas and music theatre works, on the one hand, and the representational demands and ‘real world’ concerns of his libretti, narratives and plots, on the other? To consider this question, emphasis is given to close readings of sketches and scores as and when they intersect with broader aesthetic and cultural themes. My study therefore touches on theories of parody, time and narrative, pastoral, film, the body, and community, as suggested by the central themes of each stage work and the concerns of each librettist.”

Harrison Birtwistle’s Operas and Music Theatres is published by Cambridge University Press as part of its Music Since 1900 series.