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Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre

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Part of Music since 1900

  • Date Published: February 2017
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316641989

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About the Authors
  • David Beard presents the first definitive survey of Harrison Birtwistle's music for the opera house and theatre, from his smaller-scale works, such as Down by the Greenwood Side and Bow Down, to the full-length operas, such as Punch and Judy, The Mask of Orpheus and Gawain. Blending source study with both music analysis and cultural criticism, the book focuses on the sometimes tense but always revealing relationship between abstract musical processes and the practical demands of narrative drama, while touching on theories of parody, narrative, pastoral, film, the body and community. Each stage work is considered in terms of its own specific musico-dramatic themes, revealing how compositional scheme and dramatic conception are intertwined from the earliest stages of a project's genesis. The study draws on a substantial body of previously undocumented primary sources and goes beyond previous studies of the composer's output to include works unveiled from 2000 onwards.

    • The first systematic investigation of Birtwistle's sketches for all his stage works, the book will help readers understand ways in which the composer's working methods relate to dramatic themes in the stage works
    • Informed by conversations with the composer, audio recordings of workshops and accounts by those involved in the more recent stage works, this study provides an unprecedented insight into Birtwistle's collaborations
    • Brings a wide range of critical perspectives to Birtwistle's stage works, including those written since 1999, complementing and substantially updating earlier studies of Birtwistle's music
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    • Honourable Mention, 2013 Diana McVeagh Prize, North American British Music Studies Association

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Even were Harrison Birtwistle's Operas and Music Theatre not so well written by such a perceptive and well-qualified author as David Beard, it would be a definitive study. Since it is, the book can be unreservedly recommended for anyone interested in this corner of contemporary music: they cannot but come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of how Birtwistle's music works. For enthusiasts of Birtwistle's original and beautiful musical world it's essential.' Mark Sealey, Classical Net (

    'David Beard's new study of all Birtwistle's dramatic works is as impressively comprehensive and thorough as anyone could hope … There is a wealth of new insight and information in every chapter … this is a wonderfully dedicated study, which provides an invaluable guide to the most significant operatic achievement of our time.' Andrew Clements, Opera

    '… composers have a thousand ways of conjuring notes, and it is a testimony to Beard's skill and diligence that he has managed to explain so many of them … When Beard explicates the music he writes with admirable clarity, and no future writer on the composer can ignore the insights he offers … one hopes that Beard's colleagues at Cardiff University have cracked open a few expensive bottles in celebration of his achievement, even as they reflect that his exhaustive efforts have deprived other scholars of a profitable research area for a few generations to come.' Kevin O'Connell, The Musical Times

    '… the nature of Beard's focus enables him consistently to provide fresh, alternative insights that complement and enhance the existing literature … [He] provides the reader with valuable, fascinating insights into Birtwistle's compositional workshop … [and] draws on an impressive range of technical and conceptual tools alongside a keen eye for musical details that open up new interpretative vistas. This is a serious, committed volume that makes a significant contribution to Birtwistle scholarship, and should be essential reading for anyone interested in stage music of the late twentieth century.' Edward Venn, Tempo

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    Product details

    • Date Published: February 2017
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316641989
    • length: 488 pages
    • dimensions: 245 x 170 x 25 mm
    • weight: 0.84kg
    • contains: 8 b/w illus. 11 tables 174 music examples
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. The roots of Birtwistle's theatrical expression: from Pantomime to Down by the Greenwood Side
    2. Punch and Judy: parody, allusion, and the grotesque
    3. The Mask of Orpheus: 'lyrical formalism', time and narrative
    4. Yan Tan Tethera: pastoral labyrinths and the scene-agent ratio
    5. The shadow of opera: dramatic narrative and musical discourse in Gawain
    6. 'A face like music': shaping images into sound in The Second Mrs Kong
    7. Corporeal music: Bow Down, The Io Passion and The Corridor
    8. The Last Supper and The Minotaur: eyes 'half filled and half deserted'

  • Author

    David Beard, Cardiff University
    David Beard is Senior Lecturer in Music at Cardiff University, where he is Director of the MA programme in Musicology. He has published widely on the music of Harrison Birtwistle in academic journals, including Music Analysis, the Cambridge Opera Journal and Twentieth-Century Music, and in notes for concerts and opera festivals. He has contributed to Peter Maxwell Davies Studies, Ancient Drama in Music for the Modern Stage and Dichotonies: Gender and Music, and he is the co-author of Musicology: The Key Concepts.


    • Honourable Mention, 2013 Diana McVeagh Prize, North American British Music Studies Association

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