Like everyone who knows him, I sometimes call the composer, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, “Harry.” In truth, though, my acquaintance with him is slight – we first bonded in Mere, Wiltshire over a few bottles of serious red from the Northern Rhône, poured by our mutual chum, Robin Yapp, who had been Harry’s dentist before he became the leading UK Rhône and Loire wine merchant. I’ve greeted him at the press nights of Gawain (in its revised 1994 Royal Opera version); The Second Mrs Kong (in its Glyndebourne touring production, and again at Glyndebourne in 1995; and the Minotaur (Covent Garden 2008); but can’t claim to know or even to have heard most of his work.
However, I do know the writer and Observer classical music critic, Fiona Maddocks, well enough that for this Christmas she gave me her new book, Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks, A conversation diary with Fiona Maddocks (Faber & Faber). Fiona presented it to my wife and me at the annual Christmas dinner we hold at our house where the guests include her and her husband, the artist Tom Philips. That’s the disclosure done.
Wild Tracks is the most entertaining book on the subject of music I have ever read, which I did straight through in two or three sittings, and is almost impossible not to do, because it is so gripping. Structured like a thriller, it has a couple of mysteries at its heart. The first cliff-hanger: would he ever finish composing the piano concerto, Responses: sweet disorder and the carefully careless, which Sir Harry was writing for his own 80th birthday on 15 July 2014, and finally completed in January? On this delicate, slightly brittle thread, Fiona Maddocks strings the considerable pearls Harry sometimes reluctantly shares with her about how he writes music. Most of their scheduled conversations begin with Fiona asking how work on the piano and orchestra piece is going; Harry must sometimes have felt a bit nagged, but, to his credit, rarely equivocates or ducks the question.
The ducking and weaving is saved for the second mystery: why won’t he talk about his school days, in the 1930s, in Accrington, Lancashire? His time at school is his Rosebud, his stale madeleine, which he refuses to dip into any of the wildly exotic Japanese teas he brews ceremoniously to start most of their sessions. Partly the answer is to do with the despoiling of his Arcady by ugly power stations that later became derelict; and part is deeply felt emotion, perhaps a bit of shame to do with bullying. Whatever the solution to the puzzle, its exposition is so brilliant that you can’t put down the book.
Each time she calls on the composer in his Wiltshire house and studio she sets the scene by detailing the weather, the time and temperature, and chronicles the progress of the crop of the old, wounded plum tree, the quinces and figs and the procession of flowers, from late March to late September, taking in the very hot summer of 2013. She is with him for that summer’s Dartington, and for the Salzburg Festival, where he hates Alvis Hermanis’s massive, Joseph Beuys-tribute production of Gawain, but approves the performances, and is a little flattered by both the opera production and by that of several others of his pieces performed there – where the weather is, as always in Salzburg in July, unforgivingly hot.
Their conversation glitters with gems. I can remember being puzzled when I was writing my biography of G.E. Moore, and people, especially academics, insistently and repeatedly asked me what author’s book I was taking as a model. I was stumped by the question itself. Why do you have to have a model? Doesn’t the material you are using suggest its own its own organisation and order? Much of what Birtwistle to say about his working practices turn on these a priori schemes or structures that other people assert you must have: “I can’t accept that there’s a model I can use. I don’t do prototypes.” This explains a great deal about the distinctiveness of each of his works.
Sir Harry is often acerbic and very funny about other composers: “I like everything about Stockhausen except the notes.”
Fiona Maddocks has constructed this volume so artfully that it often gives as much pleasure as reading a novel. Not necessarily a novel about music or composers – it’s not Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, though Harry has his Leverkühn moments. With its purposeful diversions and digressions, its interjected conversations with Harry’s enchanting family, friends and colleagues, with its whiffs of gossip (usually substantial enough to count as history), its attention to food, wine and the visual aspects of houses, gardens and interiors as well as pictures, Wild Tracks is, I think, a small, genuine masterpiece. To me it recalls my favourite “novel,” Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. A wonderful subject for Harry’s next opera. Maybe he needs a librettist.