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 still regularly 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 orchestral works since 1995 included 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, won the 2002 Gramophone Award for best contemporary recording. Following years brought first performances of Theseus Game, co-commissioned by RUHRtriennale, Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta, The Io Passion for Aldeburgh Almeida Opera and Night’s Black Bird commissioned by Roche for the Lucerne Festival. His final full-length opera The Minotaur received its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2008 conducted by Antonio Pappano and was released on DVD by Opus Arte.
His music theatre work The Corridor was presented in 2009 by the Aldeburgh Festival, Southbank Centre, Bregenz Festival, and in New York and Amsterdam, and was paired in a double bill with The Cure in 2015. Other works from his later years included the Violin Concerto for Christian Tetzlaff, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011, followed by performances at the BBC Proms, Tokyo Composium and Salzburg Festival. Birtwistle’s 80th birthday year in 2014 saw the premiere of Responses for piano and orchestra, toured internationally with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. Deep Time, his last major work for orchestra, was commissioned by the Berlin Staatsoper and BBC Radio 3, was premiered in 2017 under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, and has a performance scheduled on 6 May 2022 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner.
The music of Birtwistle has attracted international conductors including Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst, Antonio Pappano, Martyn Brabbins, Daniel Harding, Vladimir Jurowski and Edward Gardner. 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, MiTo in Turin and Milan and Casa da Música in Porto.
Birtwistle received many honours, including the Grawemeyer Award in 1987 and the Ernst von 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 of London (1995-2001) and was a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Recordings of Birtwistle’s music are available on the Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, NMC, CPO, Metronome and Soundcircus labels.
Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes