Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934)
The Moth Requiem (2012)
After decades of determined independence, one of the surprises of the septuagenarian Birtwistle has been his willingness to adopt titles which acknowledge connections with Western music’s past – ‘String Quartet’, ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’ – and to do so often in contexts where bowed string instruments, notable by their absence in his earlier music, come to the fore. ‘Requiem’ here establishes a similar connection, but a more oblique one. And bowed strings are again absent, eschewed in favour of an instrumental line-up which is Birtwistlian indeed, with a single thread of wind tone (the alto flute, playing almost without pause throughout the piece) accompanied by not one but three of his favourite instrument, the harp.
The writing for chorus is also characteristically idiosyncratic, but here the sense of ‘Birtwistlian’ derives from the composer’s more recent work: from the beautiful a cappella interludes from his opera The Last Supper, for instance, where – as here – groups of three singers are often further subdivided into shifting combinations of single and paired voices. And in fact it was a poem by The Last Supper’s librettist, Robin Blaser, that inspired the present work. ‘A Literalist’ is the opening item in a sequence called The Moth Poem which Blaser wrote in the early 1960s, prompted by mysterious nocturnal sounds which he finally traced to a moth caught inside the lid of his piano.
Birtwistle’s setting is highly original, with the poem split in hocket fashion between the different voices so that each singer sustains one syllable as another commences the next; the subject matter is more strongly conveyed by the instrumental writing, which is extraordinarily vivid in its evocation of the sounds of the moth hitting the piano strings as it flies around. But if the surface of the work is this pictorial aspect, then the title suggests a deep concern which is quite different, and the greater part of the text is a simple incantation of the Latin names of various moth species, as if in substitution for the Latin texts traditionally found in a requiem mass. Some of the species named are still commonly found, but others are now extinct within the British Isles (like Isturgia limbaria, which disappeared from Suffolk some time after 1911) or even worldwide (most notably Euclemensia, the so-called ‘Manchester moth’, not seen since 1829). And so, albeit indirectly and without Christian content, the work suggests themes of loss and remembrance which through the centuries have been one of choral music’s enduring concerns.
© 2014 John Fallas