Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Birtwistle biography

Sir Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in the north of England in 1934 and studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, making contact with a highly talented group of contemporaries including Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. In 1965 he sold his clarinets to devote all his efforts to composition, and travelled to Princeton as a Harkness Fellow where he completed the opera Punch and Judy. This work, together with Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time, firmly established Birtwistle as a leading voice in British music.

The decade from 1973 to 1984 was dominated by his monumental lyric tragedy The Mask of Orpheus, staged by English National Opera in 1986, and by the series of remarkable ensemble scores now performed by the world's leading new music groups: Secret Theatre, Silbury Air and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Large-scale works in the following decade included the operas Gawain and The Second Mrs Kong, the concertos Endless Parade for trumpet and Antiphonies for piano, and the orchestral score Earth Dances.

Birtwistle's works of the past decade include Exody, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, Panic which received a high profile premiere at the Last Night of the 1995 BBC Proms with an estimated worldwide audience of 100 million, and The Shadow of Night commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi. The Last Supper received its first performances at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and at Glyndebourne in 2000. Pulse Shadows, a meditation for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble on poetry by Paul Celan, was released on disc by Teldec and won the 2002 Gramophone Award for best contemporary recording. Theseus Game, co-commissioned by RUHRtriennale, Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta, was premiered in 2003. Premieres in 2004 included The Io Passion for Aldeburgh Almeida Opera and Night's Black Bird commissioned by Roche for the Lucerne Festival. His operaThe Minotaurreceived its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2008 and has been released on DVD by Opus Arte.His music theatreworkThe Corridoropened the AldeburghFestivalin 2009, with a further staging at the Holland Festival the following year.Angel-Fighterfor voices and ensemble was premiered at the Leipzig BachFest in 2010, and Christian Tetzlaff premieredConcerto for Violin and Orchestrawith the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011.

The music of Birtwistle has attracted international conductors including Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Elgar Howarth, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst and Sir Antonio Pappano. He has received commissions from leading performing organisations and his music has been featured in major festivals and concert series including the BBC Proms, Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Holland Festival, Lucerne Festival, Stockholm New Music, Wien Modern, Wittener Tage, the South Bank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Vienna and Settembre Musica in Turin and Milan.

Birtwistle has received many honours, including the Grawemeyer Award in 1968 and the Siemens Prize in 1995; he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, awarded a British knighthood in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He was Henry Purcell Professor of Music at King's College, University ofLondon (1995-2001) and was Director of Composition at the RoyalAcademy of Music in London. Recordings of Birtwistle's music are available on the Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, NMC, CPO and Soundcircus labels, with discs ofPulse Shadowson Teldec andNight's Black Birdon NMCwinning Gramophone Awards in 2002 and 2011.

He became a Visiting Professor at the Academy in 2012. On 9 October 2015 Birtwistle was awarded the Wihuri Foundation’s Wihuri Sibelius Prize; he received his seventh British Composer Award on 9 December 2015.

Harrison Birtwistle is published by Boosey [&] Hawkes. Universal Edition was the sole publisher of his music until 1994.

Reprinted with kind permission from Boosey [&] Hawkes

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About the music

The anecdote may be apocryphal but it has a symbolic value: the world premiere of Punch and Judy, Harrison Birtwistle’s “tragical comedy or comical tragedy”, on 8 June 1968 in Aldeburgh, was attended by Benjamin Britten. Apparently, at one point, Britten could not bear it any longer and left his box before the performance ended. Twenty-one years lie between the births of the two composers – not quite a generation but enough to make them representatives of two wholly different worlds. The older composer just could not find access to that of his younger colleague.

Britten and Birtwistle have one thing in common: unlike some of their compatriots, both have made it across the Channel and have gained wide acceptance on the Continent, indeed also in the United States.

Birtwistle has never made it easy for his listeners. His music is uncompromising in its complexity and its often abrasive harmonies. It has a primeval power, a relentless drive which time and again sounds like a slow procession. In some of his compositions, Birtwistle draws his inspiration from myths, such as in his opera Gawain or his ensemble work Silbury Air.

With regard to his music theatre pieces of which Universal Edition also publishes the monumental The Mask of Orpheus and the comic The Second Mrs Kong in addition to works on a smaller scale, his biographer Michael Hall has expressed the view that “No other living composer can match his extraordinary theatrical flair. It informs not only his operas but just about everything he composes from major orchestral works such as The Triumph of Time, Earth Dances and Exody (Boosey [&] Hawkes) to chamber music such as Pulse Shadows (UE and B[&]H) and even miniature piano pieces.”

Birtwistle has composed a wide range of works for chamber ensemble, both for The Pierrot Players which he founded together with Peter Maxwell Davies (the two of them, with Alexander Goehr, were known as the Manchester Group of Composers, having studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music, now the Royal Northern College of Music there) and for The London Sinfonietta.

These compositions have gained a foothold in the repertoire of ensembles all over the world. Here are a few titles: Tragoedia, Entr’actes and Sappho Fragments, Verses for Ensembles, Secret Theatre, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum, Silbury Air …

Sir Harrison (he was knighted in 1988) has also written some poetry which he then proceeded to set to music. Here are the first two lines of Songs by Myself:

O light set a flame in amber, and freeze
the rose’s pulse.

Images of remarkable beauty, of genuine poetry. The composer has admitted that he feels closer to artists than to musicians and indeed is known to have produced some pictures of great originality. It is perhaps true to say that those endowed with creativity have various channels at their disposal through which they can express themselves. For Birtwistle, music is obviously his primary vent but like Ligeti or like Rihm he is equally at home in other fields of creativity as well.

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