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In Performance: Cortege by Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Cortege is Harrison Birtwistle's completely new reworking of the earlier work Ritual Fragment - which itself was dedicated to the memory of the former director of London Sinfonietta, Michael Vyner. The composer wanted to revise and correct the original, but soon discovered that his intentions went much further.

In Cortege Birtwistle creates a piece of music theatre for 14 unconducted musicians, 10 of whom take it in turns to walk out to the front and perform as a soloist. As each player gets to the end of their solo passage they overlap with the next player - passing on the solo line in a seamless thread. The musicians sit in a horseshoe with each of the 10 soloists opposite the one who plays after them, swapping places when they return to their seat. This simple piece of theatre elegantly articulates the music’s structure.

Performance of Cortege (2007) from our In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle concert on 24 May 2012. Filmed live at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. 
Recording of performance supported by London Sinfonietta Entrepreneur Robert McFarland.

Interview about Cortege with Sir Harrison Birtwistle by Tom Service

In this interview Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Tom Service discuss his 2007 work Cortege from its beginnings as a reworking of his earlier work Ritual Fragment to its musical and theatrical elements. The talk features musical examples performed by London Sinfonietta players.

This interview was recorded on 24 March 2012 as part of our In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle concert.  

Audio guide by Philip Cashian

To follow the timestamps referenced here please watch on Youtube and follow the links in the description.


0:00 – 0:31 Here is a simple figure in the bass drum and a low repeating bell-like figure in the piano. Both return throughout the piece, a kind of master of ceremonies, signalling the beginning or end of a solo line.

0:53 Solo trumpet starts

1:43 Solo violin starts, dovetailing with the trumpet for a few moments who stops at 15:42.

2:15 Solo bassoon enters with a loud, low note underneath a high sustained note on the solo violin.

3:04 Solo viola enters almost imperceptibly with quiet harmonics that briefly alternate with an expressive solo bassoon before both instruments drop to the bottom of their registers for a change in character triggered by short percussive notes in piano at 3:20 and a quick descending flurry of notes in the woodwind. The viola solo truly begins at 3:36.

3:40 – 4:20 Instruments in the ensemble punctuate, react to and imitate the soloists throughout the piece. In this section listen out for pairs of repeated fast notes in strings then woodwind then both together which exaggerate the frantic music of the solo viola.

4:28 Solo horn enters accompanied by a repeating figure heard 3 times in the soon departing solo viola.

5:17 Listen to the trumpet echoing the brief, fast figure in the solo horn.

5:40 Solo oboe begins but is soon interrupted by the now familiar piano and bass drum motif at 6:02 and again at 6:35.

7:03 Second violin solo begins as the solo oboe finishes.

8:10 – 8:20 Listen out for the solo violin, flute, clarinet and bassoon’s short, repetitive figure, a moment of stasis, which repeats 3 times before moving on.

8:20 The solo clarinet’s entry with a rapid rising flourish mirrors the fast descending scale that has just ended the second violin’s solo passage.

8:42 Solo bass trumpet enters and up until 9:26 has a duet with the solo clarinet.

10:09 The final soloist, flute, enters and it’s fast descending flourishes are echoed in the ensemble.

There’s a distinct change of mood at 11:04 - 11:29 as the solo flute becomes more reflective and melancholic.

11:49 The solo flute begins to walk around the ensemble playing a brief, animated figure to each of the soloists who in turn stand up and reply with their own short phrase: violin 1 viola, oboe, clarinet, bass trumpet, violin 2, horn, bassoon and finally, trumpet.

13:01 The flute solo finishes and the entire ensemble come together over the bass drum and piano motifs leading into a quietly ticking fade out at 13:20.

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Published: 7 Feb 2020