Gawain is an opera composed by Harrison Birtwistle and based on the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was first performed by the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden on May 30, 1991; and Birtwistle subsequently revised the score in 1994, providing a tighter and shorter account of the narrative. The libretto for that narrative was prepared by David Harsent.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is recognized as one of the major achievements in the early history of English literature. It is a written text, but the author is unknown. It dates from the late fourteenth century, suggesting that the author was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer; but it is unlikely that Chaucer knew of either the poem or the poet. The poem is in four moderately large sections, each consisting of stanzas of alliterative verse of different lengths but each concluding with four lines in the so-called bob and wheel rhyme scheme. The narrative may have been originally oral, but the strict structural form suggests that the documented version was conceived to be written.
The narrative follows a plot type known as the “beheading game.” Basically, the Green Knight intrudes on a Christmas celebration by the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. He challenges any knight to strike him with an axe on the condition that he will return the blow after a year and a day have passed. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the knight. The knight then picks up his head and reminds Gawain of the promise he has made. To make a long story short, Gawain survives three blows from the knight, after which it is revealed that all was a deception concocted by Morgan le Fay to test Arthur’s knights.
The tale is thus one of an exchange of violent acts that may not have been real in the first place. Harsent’s narrative sticks to the plot line without trying to follow the structural poetic constrains on the original text. (He also wrote the libretto in modern English.) However, as was the case in earlier dramatic works set to music by Birtwistle, it is the music that tends to prevail over the words.
Birtwistle has developed for himself an impressively diverse toolbox of rhetorical devices that serve the prevailing themes of violence and deception. As might be guessed, those devices are structured around dissonance; but it is the diversity of approaches to dissonance that impresses the listener. While Birtwistle makes much of working with dissonant intervals in both his harmonies and the contours of his melodic lines, particularly those for the vocalists, his approach to both rhythm and instrumentation are just as dissonant. However strict the verse form of the poem may have been, the music manages to avoid any commitment to a sense of beat for pretty much the entirety of the opera’s two acts. Furthermore, the loudest of the instruments, particularly the brass and the percussion, are required to play what may best be described as intrusive declamations. The force of the instrumental sonorities thus runs the risk of overwhelming the vocalists, perhaps suggesting that the narrative itself is just a pretext for a subtext of far more sinister forces. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Morgan le Fay has both the first and last words in the libretto.
The revised production of Gawain was recorded live from a Royal Opera House performance at Covent Garden for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on April 20, 1994. That recording was originally released by Collins Classics, and about a year ago it was reissued by NMC Recordings. The conductor is Elgar Howarth.
What is most impressive about this recording is how well one can hear how much is going on in Birtwistle’s score. However, in the midst of all of that activity, the diction of the vocalists does not always prevail. One has no trouble making out the words; but, in the midst of all of that dissonance, one cannot always assemble the semantic interpretation. Thus, the presence of the libretto in the booklet is definitely helpful, although some familiarity with the original poem may also assist in picking up on the connotations, rather than just the denotations, of Harsent’s choices of words. Ultimately, however, it is the rhetoric of the music itself that makes Gawain such a powerful listening experience.