Rhetorical figures and rhetorical strategies in The Minotaur by Harrison Birtwistle

Dominika Micał


The Minotaur is the opera composed by Harrison Birtwistle to libretto by David Harsent. It was premiered in 2008 in Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Birtwistle’s musical language is basically modernist: atonal, centralised, based on interval or number patterns, pre-compositional operations, scales invented by the composer himself. His music is recognised as generally intellectual and connected with great avantgarde of 20th century. On the other hand, Birtwistle has never denied expression in his pieces. Titles and extra-musical inspirations are common (i.e. Melencolia 1). Birtwistle is inspired by music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and, less often, Baroque.

The score of The Minotaur is full of rhetorical figures: both hypothyposis and emphasis. They are evident and immediately recognised inspite of contemporary, atonal language of the opera. Mostly, they areinspired by Baroque musical-rhetorical figures but there are examplesof individual, contemporary means. Figures are local and connectedwith only one or few words. General atmosphere of fear and isolationcan be created with ‘rhetorical strategies’, which are active much longerthan figures. Birtwistle uses musical symbols as well. There are twomain symbols in The Minotaur: the iambic ‘glissando gesture’ whichopens the opera and appears in its key moments, and the ‘motif offate’ – repetition connected with powers of fate and with tragic irony.

The question is, why Birtwistle used so traditional and instantly recognisable means, as he is known for his highly intellectual music. Answer given in this text is that they stay in service of narration. They are audible and visible signs of telling the story.

Słowa kluczowe: Harrison Birtwistle, David Harsent, Minotaur, musical rhetoric, contemporary opera


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