Promoter of Modern British Music: Harrison Bertwisell

  On April 18, 2022, British composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022) passed away. The representative of British modern music is recognized by the world as one of the most important British composers today for his highly individual and challenging musical style.
  Born in Accrington, a small pre-industrial city in England, Bert Wiesle began his musical career with the clarinet. In 1952, Bert Wiesle entered the Royal Manchester Academy of Music as a clarinetist, studying clarinet with Frederick Thurston (1901-1953) and Richard Hall ( Richard Hall, 1903-1982) studied composition. At that time, several young people studying at the Royal Manchester Academy of Music were dissatisfied with the too old music culture, and they were keen on new things, especially the ideas and techniques of Vienna Modernism. This group was known at the time as the “Manchester Group” and was composed of Bert Wiesel, Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) and Alexander Goehr (1934-2016). 1932- ) composition. They studied in Hall’s composition classes, drawing on or following the example of radical-minded composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
  Although there was less opportunity to hear The Second Viennese School in London at the time, the establishment of the Manchester Music Group provided them with an important position to explore the techniques and works of Schoenberg and others. At this time, Bert Wessel was learning the twelve-tone technique and came into contact with musicians with strong personal styles such as Stravinsky, Webern, Varez, Boulez, and Stockhausen. work. On New Year’s Eve 1957, Bert Wiesel completed his first published work of modern music, “Refrains and Choruses” for the Wind Quintet. In this work, Bert Wiesel digs deep into the possibilities of wind writing, the playful assignment of instrumental roles, and the imaginative control of musical material. The work was selected for the Cheltenham Festival at the Cheltenham Festival in 1959 by the SPNM, an organisation of modern British composers, and its success marked Bert Wessle’s radical shift from clarinet performance to composition.
  In 1965, Bert Wiesle’s monumental work Tragoedia was staged, which foreshadowed his future creative direction. Using the form of ancient Greek tragedy, the work alludes to a wild Dionysian ritual. The composer tried to build a bridge between “absolute music” and “theatre music”, and the overall structure of the music used a “verserefrain” pattern of repetition. At this time, Bert Wessel had shown a passion for “instrumental role play”. He later pioneered “instrumental theatre” in Verses for Ensembles (1968-1969), requiring players to move around the stage according to their musical roles .

  Since the 1960s, two operas by Bert Wiesel have made him highly regarded. His first opera, Punch and Judy (1966), was heavily influenced by tragic comedy, but the musical material was always full of “aggressive” and “raging” characters. In this play, Bert Whisle used his technique of repeating fixed tones and thematic segments that he was good at. A large number of different genres were repeated frequently, forming a ritual cycle, showing the composer’s An interest in non-narrative or non-linear musical theatre. The premiere of Panch and Judy in 1968 became a milestone in the creation of modern opera in the twentieth century, with Auden calling the work “one of the most outstanding and inventive operas of the century”. Another opera, “The Mask of Orpheus” (The Mask of Orpheus, 1973-1984), shows Bert Wiesel’s passion for ancient Greek mythology. In terms of music, he incorporated the “pulse” rhythmic language and rhythmic recitation into the chorus, with a special emphasis on percussion. Similar to Panch and Judy, the narrative mode of The Mask of Orpheus is non-linear, with unrelated musical events concatenated into a seemingly ordered structure, with key events more than once simultaneously or are presented continuously in “time shifts”. Thus, the show reveals a central question about time itself, the exploration of multiple existences that encompass past, present, and future. In addition, the play also successfully embodies the “ambition” of integrating music, song, drama, mythology, pantomime and electronic music, and shows rich musical expression and profound theatrical concepts. “The Mask of Orpheus” received widespread critical acclaim, winning the Evening News Opera Award in 1986 and the Gwenmayr Award in 1987.
  Bert Wiesel was a prolific composer, and in addition to opera, instrumental music was an important area of ​​his artistic creation. Among them, the chamber music Secret Theatre (1984) is a work clearly influenced by theatrical music. The performers need to move their positions on the stage and use body language to express the dramatic role changes within the music. In this case, the composer distinguishes between two basic types of music – “cantus” and “continuum”, which stand for “individual” and “collective”, respectively. Changes in the relationship between genres constitute dramatic contradictions and dialectical elements in the work.
  Rhythm is also a focus of Bert Wessell, inspired by the “metric modulation” of American composer Elliott Carter (1908-2012), who in his chamber music “Tin” Silbury Air (1977) uses the “pulse labyrinth” technique to control the logic of musical unfolding through a pulse labyrinth diagram (a beat and tempo graph). In the orchestral “Earth Dances” (1986), the pulsating technique is presented on different layers, which Bert Wiesel calls “strata”, a kind of “terrain” ( topographical) metaphor. It is the changing relationship between these “strata” that form the essence of the music (as if the earth were dancing), and each level is distinguished by a different rhythm pattern and register.
  Since the second half of the twentieth century, Bert Wessel has been active in promoting the development of modern British music. He synthesized and reworked the European modernist artistic tradition to produce a musical style that was remarkably independent and authoritative. His music reflects his strong personal worldview, and “drama, ritual, myth, time, pulse” has become the label and key word of his music creation. Bert Wessel does not belong to any one group or genre, and although he grew up in the “Manchester School”, he is not bound by it. He respects British heritage, but he is by no means conservative in burying himself deep in the “narrow” national music. On the contrary, he chose to stand on the side of an emerging avant-garde music that was widely supported by Europe and even internationally with an open mind, and made British music debut in the world music scene with a strong personal charm and unique musical language. The New York Times called him “one of the most talented composers of his generation”.