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One of Britain’s most acclaimed composers, Birtwistle grew up playing clarinet in the village band, and it was the clarinet which brought him to study at the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has composed in most genres, ranging from solo piano music to the operas Gawain, The Second Mrs. Kong, and The Last Supper. Birtwistle’s honors include the 1986 Grawemeyer Award, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, a British knighthood in 1988, the Siemens Prize in 1995, and a British Companion of Honor in 2001.
At the close of the last century, the poetry of Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Paul Celan (1920-1970) drew the interest of many composers. In the 1990s Luciano Berio, György Kurtág, John Zorn, and Peter Ruzicka composed works on the poet, the latter producing a full-length opera. It was a culmination of Celan’s lifelong association with musical imagery beginning with his famous early poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue).
In 1989 Harrison Birtwistle set “White and Light” in response to a commission from England’s Composers Ensemble. Over the next several years he would return to Celan for inspiration to fulfill both vocal and instrumental commissions. In 1996 he combined nine poems and nine movements for string quartet into an hour-long work titled Pulse Shadows. From that he excerpted a smaller collection: Three Settings of Celan.
“White and Light,” “Night,” and “Tenebrae” are poems from late in Celan’s life, when he had moved away from a traditional lyricism to a more compressed and austere style. Utilizing English translations by Michael Hamburger Birtwistle’s score offers versions in both English and the original German.
“Pulse Shadows” is an apt image to describe the music. In “White and Light” there is a shadow play between the soprano and clarinet, which closely echo and anticipate each other’s melodic lines. The tempo and texture is unsteady and fluid, a quality reflected in Celan’s text by repeated use of the word “drift.” The soprano’s highest register is on full display in “Night,” while aggressive viola strokes provide an uneasy pulsation to “Tenebrae.” Long, sustained soprano notes – particularly on the many instances of the word “Lord” – lead the work to an enigmatic conclusion.