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Harrison Birtwistle: Forces the listener to pay attention (credit: Hanya Chlala)

Explaining Harrison Birtwistle, who turns 80 this month, to someone who has never heard his music is rather like offering chocolate to a newly-landed Martian. Nothing about the product instantly appeals. It looks earthy, sounds dull and feels, in the worst sense of the word, organic — that is to say, too close to gross fundamentals for comfort or pleasure.

On first exposure, it's as unexpected as the game of cricket. "But it's so English!" exclaimed the late Gerard Mortier midway through The Minotaur, dismissing with a continental shrug an opera that sold out two runs at Covent Garden, something few new works can hope to achieve. "Clear your mind," I urged Gerard, "open your ears." But he couldn't. Not out of Anglophobia; simply, he was unable to find a way in.

The problem with Birtwistle is that he is a one-off, an original. From the night in 1967 when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears walked out of Punch and Judy, his first opera, muttering about "intolerable violence", it should have been clear that he was never going to fit into any canon or convenient category, English or other.

Birtwistle's music sounds, on first hearing, extra-planetary, unfathomable. At second attempt, unaided, it gets no less weird. Yet I know no music of recent times that yields so easily to a key in the lock and, swinging open, delivers a sensation that is unearthly in the best sense of the word — that is to say, beyond earthbound imagination.

The door opened for me 30 years ago, a time when Covent Garden turned down Birtwistle's second opera and the Coliseum was struggling to make sense of The Mask of Orpheus, in which the hero crosses into the underworld not once but several times, resisting the rule of narrative coherence. I sat through the dress rehearsal and three of the five performances, marvelling at the power of an artist who confronted the world altogether on his own terms, part real and part dream. 

I went to visit him on a bare French mountaintop where he retreated from the constraints of normality after serving for a while as Peter Hall's director of music at the National Theatre (few knew that the music they heard in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus was Mozart through the Harry looking-glass). His spartan studio looked out on barren slopes. He lived, with his wife Sheila, among middle-aged Frenchmen with parade-ground front gardens who looked as if they had been retired from the Foreign Legion in disgrace.

Harry loved it. The grey rocks, the scraggy sheep, reminded him of the scrubland where he grew up, on the edge of Accrington (his Minotaur, Sir John Tomlinson, hails from the same Lancashire wasteland). It was a nowhere land, ideal for a lonely boy. He trudged though fields with a wailing reed and a Greek myth in his head, or so he said. Conversation with Harry is conducted in fragments. He tells Fiona Maddocks in a gripping new book of conversations titled Wild Tracks (Faber, £22.50) that his father was variously a baker, a farmer, or a black-marketeer. When Fiona prods for detail, he scuttles away. Or talks about cricket, a Lanky passion.

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Mark Stratford
June 5th, 2014
9:06 AM
=== I heard the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra talk of smashing his violin Yes, this was Rodney Friend. I remember during the premiere at RFH (conducted by Eotvos), Mr Friend was scowling away. I’m not sure why the associate concert master, Bela Dekany, wasn’t in the first chair

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