On Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘The Gleam’…

November 2nd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comAs we hurtle towards another festive period with the usual mix of anticipation, disbelief and terror I thought I would take a little time out from essays and external examiner’s reports to write a Christmas-themed blog, I’ve done it for the past four years and have covered some of my favourite British Christmas carols – Howells’s A Spotless Rose, Joubert’s Torches and Warlock’s Bethlehem Down. I thought I’d try something a little different this year (and it’s not Do They Know it’s Christmas…) and go for a piece by another British composer, but something a little more contemporary…Harrison Birtwistle’s The Gleam.

This work had an instant impact on me when I heard it for the first time on the 24 December 2003, when it was first performed in the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge (it had been commissioned for the service) – primarily because it was just so creepy. For the entirety of its six minutes it provided a crepuscular, nocturnal, dingy and wan procession, the ultimate antidote to not only the Christmas drivel pushed down your ears in the high street shops, but also the rest of the fayre provided by the choir in the service (it made Lennox Berkeley’s In Wintertime seem relentlessly upbeat…). It was just so different, so noticeable, and so original. I’d even go as far as saying it was so ‘ballsy’ to do something like The Gleam in such a hallowed, traditional and high-profile event as the Nine Lessons. But I guess, that’s what you get when you commission Britain’s High Priest of Modernism, Harrison Birtwistle.

For those of you not acquainted with Birtwistle and his work, let me give you a brief potted history – he was born in the cultural hotspot of Accrington, Lancashire in 1934 and rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s with a series of hard-edged works for various chamber ensembles and orchestras. He is a hugely respected cultural figure (a Knighthood in 1988 and a Companion of Honour in 2001) with a string of major commissions and international prizes. And his music is generally hated by your average concert-goer. His saxophone concerto, Panic was premièred at the Last Night of the Proms in September 1995 (an even more august occasion then the Nine Lessons) and was greeted by a dumbfounded audience and followed by total derision in the popular press – ‘How dare the BBC ruin a great tradition with this bestial cacophony’ and ‘unmitigated rubbish’ stated The Daily Express. He was never going to provide an Away in the Manger or Ding Dong Merrily on High.

And The Gleam certainly isn’t Away in the Manger, but neither is it Panic, it is a deeply contemplative work enticing you into its somnolent, hazy sound-world – creepy it is, but it is also deeply effecting, poignant and hugely memorable. It is a setting of a poem of the same name by Stephen Plaice (who has provided the libretto to several of Birtwistle’s operatic projects) though Birtwistle’s setting has less to do with the ‘wintering beasts’ and ‘Soft Mary’ of the poem and focusses more on the nocturnal setting which is suddenly interrupted by the ‘Six-pointed star’ that provides ‘the gleam’ of the title. In fact, the section of the piece that sets the words ‘the gleam’ is the most striking of the whole work, an intensely bright chromatic cluster at fortissimo dynamic, totally different to the material that has gone before. It would have made sense to finish the piece with the same restrained sounds with which it began, but not for Birtwistle, he finishes with fortissimo, dissonant outbursts of ‘Noel!’ before having the choristers clap and stamp and finish with quiet, staccato syllables.

I’m not sure how many performances The Gleam has had in the intervening twelve years, though I’m guessing not that many – it’s hugely difficult to perform, and not that easy to listen to, either. But it is such a memorable piece, so effective, so effecting and so different. Was The Gleam greeted warmly by audiences and critics? ‘Whoever commissioned that carol should be locked in a darkened room and never let out’ went a letter to the conductor of King’s College Choir, Stephen Cleobury. I’m guessing not.

Have a great Christmas.


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