Our latest (Un)easy Listening post delves into Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Theseus Game; a seminal piece written for the London Sinfonietta in 2003. Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Philip Cashian uncovers one of music’s most challenging minds ahead of our concert on Friday 5 December at Southbank Centre, in which we mark Birtwistle’s 80th birthday. Find out more about Birtwistle: A Celebration and book tickets here.
Harrison Birtwistle: Theseus Game (2002-03) for 30 musicians and two conductors
Titles are always difficult for composers but some are better than others at naming their pieces. This has never been a problem for Harrison Birtwistle; Earth Dances, Angel Fighter, Endless Parade, and The Fields of Sorrow are just a few of his evocative titles. Theseus Game is no exception and like all good titles it is in itself a snapshot or signpost for what’s happening in the music. In his composer’s note at the beginning of the score Birtwistle gives three extremely useful insights into the music. “The piece is about… independent rhythmic layers which are mostly quite simple in themselves, but with two conductors it is possible to fly in different directions and do things that could not be done with only one.” He also states that “a central element of the piece is that of an endless melodic thread… which is passed from one player to another” and “… journeys within a labyrinth are circular and you often retrace your steps… there are parts of the piece where the music keeps coming back to the same place” (the title is a reference to the Greek myth of Theseus and the minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete).
Like the ball of thread Theseus trails behind him to find his way out of the labyrinth there is a continuous string of soloists throughout the work sitting on top of the musical surface. In the opening you can hear a solo violin at 00:54, solo flute at 01:30, solo horn at 02:20, solo tuba at 03:10, solo trumpet at 03:42 and solo bassoon at 04:15. These solo lines are good to hang on to to navigate your way through a constantly changing musical landscape. Between 29:16 and 29:36 you can hear a melody being passed along from violin to cor anglais to trumpet 1 to trumpet 2.
Even though the piece has many layers Birtwistle places each strand in a different register to differentiate them so that nothing, to my ears, ever gets lost in the musical texture. 05:14 to 05:49 is a good example of this: a busy, rustling tremolo bed in the lower strings, stab chords in the brass punctuating the action and the occasional bass pedal in tuba and double basses all co-exist underneath solo bassoon and solo oboe.
Other Birtwistle trademarks include mechanical ostinati such as the ‘ticking clock’ pianos and marimbas at 06:50 to 07:07 and repetitive figures such as the ascending solo clarinet line between 07:09 and 07:22 which help to establish and focus in on musical characters. By freezing the action and repeating shards of music in different layers Birtwistle is able to create a wonderful sense of expectation and anticipation in the unfolding drama as well as accumulating and building up tension.
What amazes me about Theseus Game is Birtwistle’s ability to relentlessly invent new material whilst letting the music constantly twist and turn in totally unpredictable directions. Some of my favourite moments illustrate this: 11:39 to 12:52 where a slow moving line in the flutes floats over a dancing solo viola but is gradually absorbed into the viola’s melody by 12:18. Listen at 12:36 as the solo viola melody passes into sustained harmonics in the rest of the strings and freezes, becoming the accompaniment to a new solo trumpet figure.
At different points in the piece the same music reappears. One recurring figure is a flourish of bell-like notes on pianos and tuned percussion such as at 21:21, 22:09 and 31:50 and then regularly repeating until the end of the work.
The influence of landscape is a recurring theme in Birtwistle’s music and I clearly hear this in Thesues Game with its sudden changes of perspective, shifts between foreground and background, sudden unexpected arrivals in a new place and layers of co-existing musical strata.
Recommended Further Listening
Influences on Birtwistle:
Nancarrow: Piece No.2 for small orchestra
Birtwistle’s influence on other composers:
John Woolrich: Oboe Concerto
Colin Matthews: Broken Symmetry
Simon Holt: Sparrow Night
© Philip Cashian