Harrison Birtwistle
Birtwistle in Turin, 2008
Born(1934-07-15)15 July 1934
Accrington, England
Died18 April 2022(2022-04-18) (aged 87)
Alma materRoyal Manchester College of Music
WorksList of compositions
Sheila Duff
(m. 1958; died 2012)
Children3, including Adam and Silas

Sir Harrison Birtwistle CH (15 July 1934 – 18 April 2022) was an English composer of contemporary classical music best known for his operas, often based on mythological subjects.[1][2] Among his many compositions, his better known works include The Triumph of Time (1972) and the operas The Mask of Orpheus (1986), Gawain (1991), and The Minotaur (2008). The last of these was ranked by music critics at The Guardian in 2019 as the third-best piece of the 21st century.[3] Even his compositions that were not written for the stage often showed a theatrical approach. A performance of his saxophone concerto Panic during the BBC's Last Night of the Proms caused "national notoriety".[4] He received many international awards and honorary degrees.

Life and career

Early life

Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington, a mill town in Lancashire around 20 miles north of Manchester.[5][n 1] His parents, Fred and Madge Birtwistle, ran a bakery, and his interest in music was encouraged by his mother.[2][8] She bought him a clarinet when he was seven and arranged for him to have lessons with the local bandmaster.[8] Much of his youth was spent roaming the countryside near his home, and his frustration with the disruption of the nature by modern technology would affect his later work profoundly.[7] Other youthful activities included the construction of amateur theatrical sets, and the subsequent imagining of dramas taking place inside them.[9] Birtwistle became proficient enough to play in the local military-style band and also played in the orchestra that accompanied Gilbert and Sullivan productions and the local choral society's performances of Handel's Messiah. From around this time Birtwistle first composed, later describing his early pieces as "sub-Vaughan Williams".[8]

In 1952 he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in Manchester on a clarinet scholarship. While there he came in contact with contemporaries including Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, the pianist John Ogdon, and the trumpeter Elgar Howarth.[10] Between 1955 and 1957 he completed national service in the Royal Artillery (Plymouth) Band, based in Oswestry.[11][12]

Composing career

Birtwistle served as director of music at Cranborne Chase School from 1962 until 1965, before continuing his studies at Princeton University on a Harkness Fellowship, where he completed the opera Punch and Judy to a libretto by Stephen Pruslin.[10] It was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival; Benjamin Britten is said to have left during intermission.[4] This work, together with Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time, led to greater exposure for Birtwistle in the classical music world. The orchestral work The Triumph of Time, inspired by a woodcut by Pieter Bruegel, premiered in 1972.[4]

In 1972, he wrote the music to the film The Offence, starring Sean Connery, his only film score.[13] In 1975, he became musical director of the newly established Royal National Theatre in London, a post he held until 1983.[4] He received a knighthood (1988) and was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (2001). From 1994 to 2001 he was Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College London. Birtwistle was the 1987 recipient of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition[14] for his epic opera The Mask of Orpheus.[10]

Though well-established in the classical music world, Birtwistle was relatively unknown to the general public until the mid-1990s, when two events increased his profile with the wider audience. In 1994 two anti-modernist musicians, Frederick Stocken and Keith Burstein, calling themselves "The Hecklers", organised a demonstration at the first night of a revival of his opera Gawain at the Royal Opera House, London.[15] The following year, Birtwistle's saxophone concertante work Panic was premiered in the second half of the Last Night of the Proms, as the first piece of contemporary music ever,[4] to an estimated worldwide television audience of 100 million.[16] According to the Daily Telegraph, it met with incomprehension from many viewers.[17]

In 1995, he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.[18] At the 2006 Ivor Novello Awards he criticised pop musicians at the event for performing too loudly and using too many clichés.[19]

Among the musicians who performed his works are conductors Pierre Boulez, Sir Andrew Davis, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen[10] and Simon Rattle,[20] violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the soloist in the world premiere of his violin concerto in 2011, and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the soloist in the first performance of his Responses for piano and orchestra in 2014.[10]

Private life

Birtwistle had a low media profile,[21] but occasionally gave interviews. In 2019, he was interviewed for Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3.[22] He married Sheila Duff, a singer, in 1958.[7] The couple had three sons,[7] two of whom, Adam[23] and Silas, are artists.[10][24] Sheila died in 2012.[7]

Birtwistle had a stroke in 2021 and died at his home in Mere, Wiltshire, on 18 April 2022, aged 87.[2][10][25]



Birtwistle's music is not categorised as belonging to any particular school or movement. For a time, he was described as belonging to the Manchester School, a phrase invented as a parallel to the Second Viennese School to refer to Birtwistle, Goehr, and Davies.[10] Birtwistle's music is complex, written in a modernistic manner with a clear, distinctive voice, with sounds described as of "sonic brashness".[10]

His early work is sometimes evocative of Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen, whom he acknowledged as influences, and his technique of juxtaposing blocks of sound is sometimes compared to that of Edgard Varèse.[26] Hearing the work of Boulez (Le Marteau sans maître) and Stockhausen (Zeitmaße and Gruppen) in his youth was also inspirational,[26] with that of the latter composer in particular influencing his wind quintet, Refrains and Choruses (1957).[27] His early pieces made frequent use of ostinati and often had a ritualistic feel. These were toned down in Birtwistle's later decades as his compositional style developed.[20]

Even when not creating a visual piece involving stage action, Birtwistle's musical output remained frequently theatrical in conception.[28] The music does not follow the logic and rules of classical forms such as sonata form, but is structured more like a drama. Furthermore, different musical instruments can almost be seen to take the part of different characters in the drama. This is especially apparent in a performance of Secret Theatre (1984). For various portions of the piece, a number of the instrumentalists perform in a soloist capacity. For this, they leave their seat in the ensemble and stand separately, to one side of the ensemble, returning to the group when they are no longer given that role.[29]


Main article: List of compositions by Harrison Birtwistle



Other music

Honours and awards

Honorary degrees



  1. ^ Regarding his name, Birtwistle stated that "in some reference books my name is down as Harrison Paul, which it isn't, and never has been. I don't have a second name."[6] Many people close to Birtwistle knew him as "Harry"[2] or "Harri".[7]


  1. ^ Cross 2012, "Introduction".
  2. ^ a b c d Allen, David (18 April 2022). "Harrison Birtwistle, Fiercely Modernist Composer, Dies at 87". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  3. ^ Clements, Andrew; Maddocks, Fiona; Lewis, John; Molleson, Kate; Service, Tom; Jeal, Erica; Ashley, Tim (12 September 2019). "The best classical music works of the 21st century". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d e Tilden, Imogen (18 April 2022). "Composer Harrison Birtwistle dies aged 87". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 April 2022.
  5. ^ Hall 1984, p. 4.
  6. ^ Birtwistle & Maddocks 2014, p. 10.
  7. ^ a b c d e Hewett, Ivan (18 April 2022). "Sir Harrison Birtwistle obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  8. ^ a b c Hall 1984, p. 5.
  9. ^ Clements, Andrew (18 April 2022). "Harrison Birtwistle: an utterly distinctive composer who wrote music of delicate beauty". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Tsioulcas, Anastasia (18 April 2022). "Harrison Birtwistle, an influential English composer, has died at age 87". NPR. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  11. ^ N. Wilkins, Musical Encounters, London, 2018.
  12. ^ Allen, David (18 April 2022). "Harrison Birtwistle, Fiercely Modernist Composer, Dies at 87". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 May 2024.
  13. ^ "Full Cast and Crew list of the movie 'The Offence' provided by IMDb". IMDb.
  14. ^ "1987 – Harrison Birtwistle – Grawemeyer Awards". 20 July 1987. Retrieved 27 March 2022.
  15. ^ Lister, David (14 April 1994). "First Night: Hecklers lose their first night joust: Gawain / The Hecklers Royal Opera House". The Independent. Archived from the original on 9 May 2022. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  16. ^ "Panic at the Proms". The Guardian. 9 August 2007. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  17. ^ Hewett, Ivan (14 July 2017). "Harrison Birtwistle: the welcome return of a Proms maverick". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  18. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle". evs-musikstiftung.ch.
  19. ^ Nuala Calvi, "Winning composer booed off Ivors stage for criticising bands", The Stage, 26 May 2006. Retrieved 2 March 2011.
  20. ^ a b Clarke, Colin (18 April 2017). "Simon Rattle Opens the LSO Season with an Imaginatively Varied English Programme". NPR. Retrieved 19 April 2022.
  21. ^ Maddocks, Fiona (3 May 2014). "Harrison Birtwistle: 'I don't think, with hindsight, I was a natural musician'". The Observer. London. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  22. ^ "Composer of the Week". BBC. Retrieved 19 April 2022.
  23. ^ "Adam Birtwistle – National Portrait Gallery". npg.org.uk. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  24. ^ "Giant heads sculpted from fruit and vegetables draw attention to rural communities at biodiversity summit". ifad.org. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017.
  25. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle obituary". The Times. 18 April 2022. Retrieved 18 April 2022.
  26. ^ a b Cross 2012, § "To 1969".
  27. ^ Pace 1996, p. 27.
  28. ^ Adlington 2000, p. 38.
  29. ^ Oliver, Michael (May 1996). "Birtwistle Secret Theatre, etc". Gramophone. Retrieved 19 April 2022.
  30. ^ Britannica 2022, § paras. 3–4.
  31. ^ a b c d e "Birtwistle". Akademie der Künste, Berlin (in German). Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  32. ^ "Fellows, Honorary Members and Associate Artists". The Royal Northern College of Music. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  33. ^ "In tribute – Sir Harrison Birtwistle: 1934 – 2022". The Royal Northern College of Music. Retrieved 13 July 2022.
  34. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle | Royal Academy of Arts".
  35. ^ "Honorary Members – American Academy of Arts and Letters".
  36. ^ List of honorary graduates Sussex.ac.uk. Retrieved 19 April 2022.
  37. ^ "Professor Sir Harrison Birtwistle". City, University of London. 23 November 2020.
  38. ^ "Rt Revd Lord Eames & Archbishop Tutu Honoured by University of London". Church of Ireland. 2 December 2008.
  39. ^ "Honorary degree 2010 nominations announced". University of Cambridge. 15 March 2010.
  40. ^ "Honorary Graduates". bathspa.ac.uk.
  41. ^ "Honorary degrees awarded". University of Oxford. 25 June 2014.
  42. ^ "Honorary Awards". Retrieved 27 March 2022.

Cited sources

Further reading