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Length: 12 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets (3rd = bass trumpet, 4th = piccolo trumpet), 4 trombones, 2 tubas, percussion (bass drum, claves, cymbals, guiros, marimba, metal tube, large nipple gong, slit drum, tam-tam, tubular bells, vibraphone, woodblocks, xylophone), 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Lancashire-born (in 1934) Harrison Birtwistle - now Sir Harrison - in 1952 entered the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester where he met fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, who together with pianist John Ogdon and conductor Elgar Howarth formed the New Music Manchester group, dedicated principally to the then-seldom-performed works of the Second Viennese School. Birtwistle subsequently studied at the Royal Academy of Music. After further studies and residencies in the United States and a career as a clarinetist, he decided to dedicate himself to composition. In 1975 he became musical director of the Royal National Theatre in London, a post he held until 1988. From 1994 to 2001 Sir Harrison was Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College London.
Night's Black Bird was commissioned by the Roche pharmaceutical firm for the Lucerne Festival, and was first performed there by Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra on August 20, 2004. The manuscript is dedicated to Thomas Morris, former executive director of the orchestra, who now holds the position of artistic director of the Ojai Festival.
In his program note for the premiere, Cleveland Orchestra annotator Peter Laki observes:
"Night's Black Bird was written as a sequel to Birtwistle's previous commission from the Cleveland Orchestra, The Shadow of Night . Yet at [the] world premiere… it was performed as a 'prequel,' preceding the earlier work. Between the two night pieces, the audience heard a song for voice and lute by John Dowland (1563-1626), 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell' - a major source of inspiration for Birtwistle.
"Actually, Birtwistle had long been fascinated by a work of art that is a full century older than Dowland… the engraving Melencolia by Albrecht Dürer… In 1976, the British composer wrote a work for solo clarinet, harp, and double string orchestra called Melencolia I, in which he first broached the topic to which he would return, 25 years later, in The Shadow of Night.
"The motif Birtwistle had isolated from 'In Darkness Let Me Dwell' was a very simple one: a rise of a half-step followed by a return to the initial note. This motif was woven into the fabric of The Shadow of Night, and also appears in the new piece. What is different this time is the presence of the birds.
"Night's black bird emerges from a mist of dark and slow melodic lines played by muted brass and muted strings… The melodic lines form an intricate web of sound that gradually intensifies... After a moment of great excitement where the tempo speeds up and the entire orchestra plays cascading runs of 32nd notes, a solo piccolo enters… to deliver its mysterious message. It is soon joined by a second bird, represented by the E-flat clarinet and soon by a whole choir of woodwinds. Together they hover over a texture of dark string sounds and together rise in volume until the work's biggest climax is reached. Immediately afterwards, the slow tempo and soft dynamics return and, except for one final outburst, prevail to the end. The bird says farewell in a long, lyrical flute solo and an impassioned call played by the E-flat clarinet in its shrill high register before the night takes over completely."
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.