Pablo Picasso and Harrison Birtwistle

November 21, 2016

The fundamental breakthrough that helped me understand Harrison Birtwistle’s Construction with Guitar as a complete, unified piece of music, was seeing its historical context and all the Picasso work that directly inspired the composer. It’s not always possible to publish these pictures in a program so I’m delighted that I can put them all in one place on this website.

So first, history: 2013, the year the music was completed, and 2014 the year the music was premiered, marking 100 years since the creation of Picasso’s Construction with Guitar Player and the sculpture Guitar.

There were four key pieces that channeled into the creation of this piece of music. In 2007, Birtwistle composed his first work for classical guitar, a miniature called Guitar and White Hand after Picasso’s 1927 painting of the same name.


A second piece of inspiration, and I believe the most important, was a page from Picasso’s 1913 sketch book, of a deconstructed guitar and guitarist mapped into sections. On each section Picasso has written the name of a colour: pink, blue, ochre, white, grey-green or black.


A third stimulus was Picasso’s Construction with Guitar Player, after which the piece is named, an installation arranged and photographed by Picasso in his studio in 1913. Picasso has partially drawn and partially painted a figure to which he fixed arms of newspaper that fold away from the wall to embrace a real guitar. In the foreground stands a table with a bottle of wine.


The fourth is Picasso’s radical Guitar of 1914 about which Picasso’s friend Andre Salmon famously said, ”With this we were delivered from painting and sculpture, liberated from the imbecilic tyranny of genres.”


So, putting this all together, I imagine this work as something of a musical analog to the fragmented structures of Picasso’s cubism. Unlike conventional musical forms which develop linearly, the piece presents glimmers of detail – fragmented melodies, motifs, hockets, interruptions – which combine collectively to create a whole impression of this “deconstructed guitar” in sound.