This book by Jonathan Cross is of tremendous value for anyone interested in the music of the British composer Harrison Birtwistle. Finished in 1999, and published in 2000, it remains one of the main sources. Cross, who was a Lecturer of Music at the University of Bristol at the time of publication, and is now Professor of Musicology at Oxford University, is obviously immersed in Birtwistle's music.
The book is organized into eight chapters. The first, called "Origins, Contexts, Models," is mainly an extensive discussion of Birtwistle's influences, including the painters Cezanne, Picasso and Klee, and the composers of the Second Vienna School, Varese, and above all Stravinsky. Six chapters cover 1) Theatres, 2) Myth and Ritual, 3) Pastoral, 4) Verses and Refrains, 5) Pulse, and 6) Line, Melody, Tonality. This is the bulk of the book, and consists of close readings by Cross, illustrating the structural and symbolic character of the music with many examples. I found the bulk of it to be quite fascinating and readable, though I did wear out toward the end under the onslaught of example after example. I was most intrigued by Cross's extended discussion of "The Second Mrs. Kong," one of Birtwistle's operas that has yet to be recorded. The concluding chapter focuses mainly on "The Last Supper," which as of 1999 was Birtwistle's latest and forthcoming opera.
Cross nicely summarizes the nature of "Birtwistle's Modernism":
"...Birtwistle's art is firmly rooted in early European modernism. The primitivism of his music, its formality, its concern with ritualized, anti-narrative structures and with myth, its interest in rhythm and in constructing new kinds of temporality, are all indicators of his engagement of that modernist tradition" (14).
I have come to consider Harrison Birtwistle to be one of the best late 20th Century composers. It took me some time to appreciate his music, partly because so much of it is vocal and operatic, and it took me an extended period to overcome my folk/rock bias in vocal music. Now I have heard Punch and Judy, The Mask of Orpheus, The Minotaur, and The Fields of Sorrow, among other vocal and operatic works, and can properly value Birtwistle as a result.
Since this book, Cross has written an entire book on The Mask of Orpheus.
He has also written an excellent book on Stravinsky.