Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral

To have two, plus three associated
concerts, all at the same venue, is something very special indeed. The Barbican
has certainly done the composer proud with its ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series.
Would that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell were regularly so
honoured; the contrast with the absurd overkill of last year’s Britten
anniversary is instructive. At any rate, Yan Tan Tethera, written in
1983-4, first performed in 1986, and very rarely heard since — might Channel
4 make available its television broadcast? — shone both on its account and
for the fuller sense it offered of Birtwistle’s musico-dramatic development.

To a libretto by Tony Harrison — any chance of seeing and hearing their
Oresteia, someone? — this may perhaps seem more conventionally a
chamber opera than Birtwistle’s earlier music-theatre pieces. And yet, listen
more closely, and this tale of North and South, of shepherds counting sheep, of
a malevolent piper, becomes more complex. There is a linear story, yes. Alan,
the good, northern shepherd, who adheres to the old counting system, ‘yan,
tan, tethera, …’ is drawn into the great hill — a precursor to
Benjamin’s ‘little hill’? — by the piper and Caleb seems about to
triumph, but the tables are turned. A modern, yet timeless, folk-like version
of Virgil’s first Eclogue, Alan and Caleb the new Meliboeus and Tityrus, is
far, however, from the whole, or perhaps better the only, story. The
interaction, and at times apparent lack of it, between Harrison’s words and
Birtwistle’s score are at least as much the story.

We are, as it were, in a ‘secret theatre’ once again. The
‘mechanics’ of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ tell of a story perhaps deeper
than Virgil, even than Theocritus. Counting itself is both external and
internal drama, which repeats, is broken, is reconstructed, yet is never the
same. The choral sheep are counted and ultimately they too count.
Birtwistle’s division of the ensemble into groups is part of that story, so
is the journey towards unison, but, as Paul Griffiths noted in the final line
of his helpful programme synopsis: ‘Alan leads his family and flock: Everyone
is counting, eventually including Caleb underground, as the musical machinery
moves on, now set aright.’ Who knows, however, whether the different
perspectives, different pulses, different landscapes, different soundworlds we
have passed through, will reassert themselves once again? Interestingly, and
tellingly, Birtwistle (quoted in Michael Hall’s book on the composer, likened
the structuring of his response to the libretto to that of Stravinsky to Auden.
Yan Tan Tethera

… has things I’ve never done before and I’m really quite excited
about it. Did you know that it was Stravinsky who divided Auden’s text for
The Rake’s Progress into recitatives and arias? Auden wrote his
libretto without the divisions. Well, I’m imposing something on Tony
Harrison’s libretto. Had I asked Tony to provide it for me, it wouldn’t
have worked; the result would be too formal in the wrong sense, too

As so often with this composer, anything but a Stravinsky epigone — there
have been more than enough of those — but rather a true successor, the
musical drama has a good deal of inspiration, conscious or otherwise, in his
great predecessor. As Jonathan Cross has noted, the very notion of the
‘mechanical pastoral’ is rooted in ‘the imaginary song of a mechanical
bird,’ just like Stravinsky’s Nightingale. The opposition between
North and South, country and the town that encroaches upon it, above all
natural and mechanical, may perhaps prove a further kinship between the two

If at first, then, I was a little disappointed by the necessarily basic
nature of John Lloyd Davies’s ‘concert hall staging’, I realised after
the event that the concentration necessity had thrown upon the music had very
much its own ‘dramatic’ virtues too, enabling me to experience and indeed
to conceptualise crucial oppositions in a work I had never heard before. For
that, of course, a great deal of praise must be accorded the excellent
performances. Baldur Brˆnnimann’s leadership of the equally fine Britten
Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices was assured and (mechanically) expressive
throughout. String glissandi — are they echoes of Tippett perhaps? —
embodying, to quote David Beard, ‘both Alan’s subjective expression and the
representative pastoral anecdote’ evoke both human acts and, perhaps still
more so, that of the landscape, as ever with Birtwistle a potent force indeed.
Such was undoubtedly apparent even from this, my first acquaintance with the
work. Likewise the distinction between the almost conventionally haunting
piper’s melody — still lodged in my memory — and the dramatic mechanisms
surrounding it. The scintillating brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia’s
response to the score was not the least of the evening’s revelations.

Roderick Williams’s Alan and Omar Ebrahim’s Caleb — extraordinary to
think he appeared also in the premiere — led a fine cast, all attentive to
words, music, and disjuncture. William’s naÔve, northern sincerity — flat
vowels and all, though sometimes they came and went — contrasted just as it
should with Ebrahim’s ‘southern’ malevolence. Claire Booth offered a
typically fine performance as Alan’s wife, Hannah, beautiful of tone,
dignified and assured of purpose. Daniel Norman’s Piper or Bad’Un, and four
boys from Tiffin School, Kingston, all made their mark very well too. Above
all, this was a splendid ensemble performance. Now, may we hope for a fully
staged version, in which dramatic oppositions receive some degree of
visualisation from an aurally alert director?

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Alan: Roderick Williams; Caleb Raven: Omar Ebrahim; Hannah: Claire
Booth; Piper/Bad’Un: Daniel Norman; Jack: Ben Knight; Dick: Benjamin Clegg;
Davie: Joe Gooding; Rob: Duncan Tarboton; John Lloyd Davies (director, design,
lighting). Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Dougan)/Britten
Sinfonia/Baldur Brˆnnimann (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Thursday 29 May

image_description=Virgil between the muses Clio and Melpomene [Source: Wikipedia]
product_title=Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Virgil between the muses Clio and Melpomene [Source: Wikipedia]