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In her rehearsal diary from the first production of Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s Gawain, Rhian Samuel describes the composer drawing a line on the back of an envelope. She recounts his insistence that the entire opera was built from ‘one line’ decorated by ‘several simultaneous lines’, in ‘a kind of organum’. The term ‘organum’ encapsulates diverse and centuries-spanning medieval techniques for harmonising chant; Birtwistle found it fascinating, and heterophonic methods analogous to it permeate his output.
In this paper, I explore how such a compositional medievalism might function in Birtwistle’s operatic adaptation of fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I focus on the tableau at the end of Act One, in which Gawain is ritually armed for his perilous quest. Underscored by polyphonic Marian motets sung, the seasons turn from Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn, to Winter again. In the final section, Gawain is presented with a shield bearing the emblem of star-shaped pentacle, or ‘endless knot’.
The pentangle serves as a complex symbol for Arthurian paradigms of courtly love, blurring secular modes of virtue and desire with Christian and Pagan imagery. In my analysis, I suggest that the ‘endless knot’ can express the ambiguities of narrative time in tandem with the ‘one line’ of Birtwistle’s modernist organum. Traceable as one unbroken path, the pentangle’s five symmetrical points gather the past, present, and future into a unified and potently symbolic process.
George K. Haggett is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. His thesis, Medievalism in Contemporary Opera, is supervised by Laura Tunbridge and Elizabeth Eva Leach. He is a reviewer for TEMPO, and articles for Contemporary Music Review and Journal of the Royal Musical Association are forthcoming.
OSiMTA Season 5 (2022–23)
We are delighted to announce that the theme for Season 5 is:
Our speakers will be examining this theme from a broad range of analytical and repertorial perspectives. Full details will be posted here soon.
We are also delighted to announce that the majority of seminars will one again take place in person, in the Committee Room of the Oxford Faculty of Music, on selected Wednesdays beginning at 16.30 UK time. We shall also be streaming all sessions via YouTube so that you can watch and join in the discussion online from wherever you are. Details of how to log in will be available shortly. For the most up-to-date information, please visit our dedicated OSiMTA pages.