There’s a line in Robert Altman’s movie “A Prairie Home Companion” where Virginia Madsen – playing the angel Asphodel dressed in a white trench-coat – comforts a bereaved woman by reminding her that the death of an old man is not a tragedy.
I had to remind myself of those words last week with the death of Harrison Birtwistle. He was 87 and after a rich and fulfilling life his death was not a tragedy, and yet it seemed one to me. I felt as if a huge figure in my life had gone. His music was amongst the first that I came to know when I started exploring the world of contemporary music back in the late 1970s early 80s: Verses for Ensembles, Punch & Judy, The Triumph of Time and perhaps above all The Mask of Orpheus (how I adore that opera and how I hated the 2019 ENO production). Others can express better than I can the combination of intellectual rigour coupled with a physicality, a visceral quality that was all his own and yet with a lyrical aspect that was all too often overlooked.
But perhaps what hits home the most is that his death in many ways feels like the end of an era. Norman Lebrecht referred to “the death of Britain’s last great composer”, and while I am sure he was as usual being deliberately provocative, and I hope that he is wrong, there is a glimmer of truth in this and it’s not just in the UK. Birtwistle was of the generation that gave us Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis and Berio, all now gone. I love the likes of Glass, Reich, Adams and Pärt, but let’s face it, they’re no spring chickens. I hope that it’s not just my advancing years speaking when I say that I don’t find their counterparts among today’s composers, talented though they may be. There are plenty of people writing fluent, enjoyable music, but few with any strong sense of identity and with such a strong personal voice.
I worry. I worry that this is a reflection of today’s world where there seems to be a reaction against high art, where elite is a dirty concept and shallow ideas rule over depth and intellect. So, I worry, but in the meantime all I can do is to enjoy the legacy that Birtwistle left for us.