Harrison Birtwistle's cheesy 'Private Passions'

Who would have thought one of our leading contemporary composers has a 'private passion' for Roy Orbison? Well, that is precisely what Harrison Birtwistle revealed in his selection of music for the BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions.

Birtwistle was born in Lancashire in 1934, and while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music with Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth formed the influential New Music Manchester group. He then went on to study in the US on a Harkness Fellowship.

His music is influenced by Stravinsky, Messiaen and Varèse. He produced a number of compositions that were central to the development of late 20th century music. These included Harrison's Clocks (1998) for piano, The Triumph of Time (1971) for orchestra, and the operas Punch and Judy (1967) and The Mask of Orpheus (1984), the latter work winning the $150,000 Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition in 1987. His avant garde style made the media headlines in 1995 when his composition Panic for drums, alto saxophone and orchestra disturbed the complacent jingoism of the traditional Last Night of the BBC Promende Concerts season.

To sample his musical style here is a two minute sample from his Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker, composed in 1998 for soprano and cello, performed by Claron McFadden and Paul Watkins -

But if you think all of Harrison's musical influences are cutting edge you are in for a surprise. One of his choices for Private Passions was Roy Orbison's In Dreams, and here is a sample from the lyrics:

In dreams I walk with you. in dreams I talk to you.
In dreams you’re mine. all of the time we’re together
In dreams, in dreams.
But just before the dawn, I awake and find you gone.
I can’t help it, I can’t help it, if I cry.
I remember that you said goodbye.
It’s too bad that all these things, can only happen in my dreams
Only in dreams in beautiful dreams.

That was selected by the composer of Punch and Judy! Here are Harrison Birtwistle's other choices:

* Palestrina, 'Si ignoras te', Oxford Camerate / Jeremy Summerly Naxos 8.550843
* Debussy, Prélude a l'après-midi d'un faune, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Ernest Ansermet Decca 414 040-2
* Ravi Shankar, 'Yaman kalyan', Anoushka Shankar (sitar) Angel 56969-2
* Boulez, Improvisation sur Mallarmé II, 'Une dentelle s'abolit' (from Ple selon pli), Christine Schaffer (soprano) / Ensemble Intercontemporain / Pierre Boulez DG 471 344-2
* Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Edo de Waart Philips 441 583-2
* Orbison, 'In Dreams', Roy Orbison Orbison IM 00057-2

Programme broadcast on 31st October 2004
Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme with this link
Information taken for promotional purposes only from Private Passions by Michael Berkeley published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884-4
Orbison lyrics - Lyricsfreak.com
Audio sample - via Boosey and Hawkes
Image credits: Punch from Civilisations.ca
Report broken links, missing images, and other errors to overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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Garth Trinkl said…
While the Palestrina, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Boulez choices are perhaps to be expected (though perhaps English medieval part-music was to be expected rather than Palestrina?) -- I find the Ravi Shankar raga choice -- instead of a work by Busoni, Varese, or Messiaen -- quite intriguing (and primal).
Kyle L said…
"In Dreams" is the new "Apres au Reve." ;-) I kid. But although cheesy, there is something appealing about it. I think it's Orbison's voice and singing style. I now have the urge to discover and listen to more (being that Orbison's popularity was way before my time).

But the urge to discover Birtwistle is stronger. He is among those I know only by name, and which I feel I have been neglecting. I think I'll put a bit of effort in listening to and exploring his music this winter break, and I'll use the works mentioned here as a starting point. Now as for that reading list I've been neglecting....
Unknown said…
Anyone who has seen David Lynch's Blue Velvet can appreciate how terrifying 'In Dreams' can be. I wonder if Birtwistle knows the film?

Long-term reader of your blog that I am, I humbly submit my own Birtwistle anecdote::


All best, David S. at Esoteric London

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