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Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper

In January 2017, the BBC Scottish Scottish Symphony Orchestra performed Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper. In this film, conductor Martyn Brabbins visits the composer at his home to interview him about the work. Their wide-ranging conversation covers Birtwistle's music and influences from Stravinsky to Dowland and what's important to his writing.

Martyn Brabbins meets Harrison Birtwistle

Conductor Martyn Brabbins meets Harrison Birtwistle to discuss The Last Supper.

Jonathan Cross introduces The Last Supper

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Last Supper began, in the composer’s own words, ‘with an idea about theatre rather than an idea about a subject matter’. In particular, the notion of a Greek-style chorus was at the centre of his thinking, long before he had imagined a note of music or had found a suitable topic. A chorus comments on events. Because Birtwistle has so often concerned himself in his operas with the re-telling of familiar stories, the idea of a chorus or chorus-figure has been consistently important for his stage works. The Last Supper – a multi-layered commentary on two thousand years of Christian history – therefore offered Birtwistle the perfect platform from which to explore further the functions of chorus.

The Last Supper offers a powerful meditation on themes of love, loss and betrayal.

There are many different kinds of chorus in the opera. The disciples themselves form one. Another is the entirely invented figure of Ghost (an allusion, no doubt, to the Holy Spirit) who, until the very end of the work, remains outside the drama, commenting on events. Other choruses remain unseen, and an a cappella group of mixed voices is heard on just three occasions to accompany the three visions that punctuate the latter part of the drama.

The principal effect of these choruses in The Last Supper is to construct a work more concerned with ritual than narrative. By employing a familiar plot, composer and librettist are relieved of the responsibility of telling the story per se – they assume everyone knows it already. Instead, they can concentrate on the way in which the story is told (or rather re-told), on how historical events have become ritualised.

The general character of the music reinforces this by adopting what might be described as a Baroque attitude. The Passions of J.S. Bach offered Birtwistle and poet Robin Blaser a fruitful model, where the flow of events is narrated in recitative, punctuated by more reflective solo arias, and framed by collective choruses. Likewise here, the disciples interact in a kind of recitative, often supported by the distinctive sound of the accordion, which functions in a manner akin to that of a continuo instrument. At key moments time seems to be suspended.

The Last Supper offers a powerful meditation on themes of love, loss and betrayal. Its text and music are infused with a sense of melancholy, reflecting at the turn of a new millennium on a human history of violence and hatred. The work closes with a question, but the final cock crow suggests that the answers are to be found within ourselves. Just as Peter was made aware of his betrayal on hearing the sound of the cock crowing, so we are all invited to examine ourselves before we judge others. Who is the betrayer?

Behind the Scenes at The Last Supper

Birtwistle's The Last Supper - Behind the Scenes

Behind the scenes at the BBC SSO's production of Birtwistle's The Last Supper.

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