Composer Harrison Birtwistle dies aged 87 | Classical music

Harrison Birtwistle, one of the UK’s foremost composers, has died aged 87. Birtwistle’s compositions of uncompromising modernism – ranging from large-scale grand opera to intimate solo piano pieces – have dominated British music for more than five decades. He was born in Accrington in 1934, and as a young clarinetist played in theater bands and began composing. He studied in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music, where, along with his fellow students Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies, he was part of an explosion of musical creativity, and belonged to a group once labeled “the Manchester School”.

His first chamber opera, Punch and Judy, premiered at the Aldeburgh festival in 1968, and legend has it that the violence of its story and music outraged much of its audience, including festival founder Benjamin Britten who apparently left at the interval. (Birtwistle himself directed a revival of the opera at the festival in June 1991.) The Triumph of Time, in 1972, inspired by a woodcut of the same name by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, secured his international reputation and remains one of his best- known works.

Birtwistle aged 39, photographed by David Newell Smith in September 1973. Photograph: David Newell Smith/the Observer

In 1975, Birtwistle became musical director of the newly established Royal National Theater in London, where his duties included teaching Simon Callow, playing Mozart in the premiere of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, to play the piano convincingly. Birtwistle received a knighthood in 1988 and was made a Companion of Honor in 2001.

If Birtwistle’s dissonant and jagged music can feel uncompromisingly aggressive, it also packs a huge emotional punch and is exhilarating and intricate. Much of his work drew on his love of poetry and language and he found inspiration in myths, ritual and folklore. An opera, Gawain, took the Middle English romance of the Arthurian knight as its source; 2008’s The Minotaur retold the Greek legend, and The Mask of Orpheus (1986) explored the Orpheus myth.

Johan Reuter (Theseus) and John Tomlinson (The Minotaur) in Birtwistle's The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House, revived in 2013.
Johan Reuter (Theseus) and John Tomlinson (The Minotaur) in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House, revived in 2013. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

He achieved national notoriety in 1995 when his saxophone concerto, Panic, premiered at the Last Night of the Proms. The work – the first piece of contemporary music that had ever appeared on a Last Night program – had been scheduled for the concert’s second half, and thus was broadcast live on a Saturday night to millions of viewers on BBC One. The work’s abrasive energy and raucous and violent soundworld was labeled a “horrible cacophony” by some reviewers and the BBC switchboard was jammed with complaints from viewers that their ears had been assaulted.

Birtwistle continued composing into his 70s and 80s. His 2019 Duet for Eight Strings was nominated for a Basca-Ivors composers award (his 10th nomination); The Moth Requiem for female voices, harps and flute, premiered in the UK at the 2013 Proms and won a Royal Philharmonic Society award – his fifth, making him the most honored musician in RPS awards’ history. “One of the beautiful and most intensely personal of his recent scores,” wrote the Guardian’s Andrew Clements. Many conductors championed his music, including Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and Antonio Pappano.

Desperately sad news about Harry Birtwistle. A privilege to have known him and worked with him. And what a legacy – not least the 4 operas premiered @SnapeMaltings @BrittenPears. Colossal figure and an inspiration. Will be sorely missed.

— Roger Wright (@rogerandout56) April 18, 2022

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Desperately sad news about Harry Birtwistle. A privilege to have known him and worked with him. And what a legacy – not least the 4 operas premiered @SnapeMaltings @BrittenPears. Colossal figure and an inspiration. Will be lately missed.

— Roger Wright (@rogerandout56) April 18, 2022

Among those paying tribute on Twitter were Aldeburgh Music’s Roger Wright, and conductor Nicholas Collon, who said “what a visionary, what a virtuoso, what an inspiration”. Australian composer Liza Lim wrote: “He was a crucial composer for me: Secret Theatre, Earth Dances, Mask of Orpheus amongst other great works.” BBC Radio 3 controller Alan Davey said: “He was a giant figure in classical music – a composer who unflinchingly followed his instinct that humanity deserves to be reflected in complex, unflinching music that permeates the soul and grasps what it is to be human in these times.”

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