Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934)
Harrison's Clocks - for piano solo (1998)
Harrison's Clocks was inspired by Dava Sobel's book, Longitude, which tells the story of the eighteenth-century clockmaker John Harrison and his forty-year obsession with solving the longitude problem by inventing a clock that would keep perfect time at sea. Harrison sustained his single-minded and iconoclastic quest in the face of jealous opposition from the astronomical establishment. Between 1737 and 1760, he perfected four individual chronometers that finally enabled the time-into-space translation required for the precise measurement of longitude. These are now displayed at the national Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the big sea clocks H-1, H-2 and H-3 are in perfect working order, while H-4 is a pocket watch kept in a state of suspended animation to protect its delicate mechanism.
The present work was originally planned as a set of four pieces, whose title contains a pun on Harrison that links the names of the clockmaker and composer without implying any one-to-one correspondence between Birtwistle's musical clocks and John Harrison's real ones. The pieces can be understood as a pianistic treatment, along the axis between etude and toccata, of the same kind of musical mechanisms already explored by the composer in such larger-scale works as Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum (1977). During their composition, however, it became apparent that the planned musical character of one of the clocks was different enough to create an asymmetry, and necessitated an additional piece to counterbalance it. The outcome is a five-part structure in which three scherzos are separated by two trios. Symbolically, this total of five musical clocks includes a fifth chronometer (H-5), again a pocket watch, which John Harrison completed in 1770 and which now resides away from its siblings at the Clockmakers Museum in Guildhall, London.
Each of the five pieces begins with a pianistic signal in which a descending
rush of low notes lands on the bottom A of the instrument.
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