A Tribute to Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)
This programme has been planned as a tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who died in 2022. Birtwistle was a towering figure in contemporary music whose influence was worldwide. Based around the clarinet, the programme also acknowledges the work of York-based musician Alan Hacker who was a long-term friend and musical associate of Birtwistle, and who taught many of those involved in tonight’s performance.
Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in 1934 and studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music. In 1960 he sold his clarinets to devote 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’, and a series of remarkable ensemble scores: ‘Secret Theatre’, ‘Silbury Air,’ ‘Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum’ and ‘…agm…’
Important large-scale compositions are the operas ‘The Minotaur’, ‘Gawain’, ‘The Second Mrs Kong’ and ‘The Last Supper’, the concertos ‘Panic’, ‘Antiphonies’ and ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’, as well as the orchestral scores ‘Earth Dances’, ‘Exody’ and ‘The Shadow of Night’. Smaller-scale pieces include ‘Pulse Shadows’, the cycle of piano works ‘Harrison’s Clocks’, ‘Orpheus Elegies’ for oboe, harp and countertenor, ‘Tree of Strings’ for string quartet, ‘The Moth Requiem’ for female voices and instruments and ‘Songs from the Same Earth’ for tenor and piano.
Birtwistle received many honours including the 1986 Grawemeyer Award, the Chévalier des Arts et des Lettres (1986), a British knighthood (1988), the Siemens Prize (1995) and the Wihuri Sibelius prize for music (2015). He was made Companion of Honour in 2001. Recordings of his music are available on the Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Signum, NMC, CPO and ECM labels.
Works premiered in recent years include his music theatre work ‘The Corridor’ which opened the Aldeburgh Festival and toured to the Southbank Centre and the Bregenz Festival, with further performances in New York and Amsterdam. Birtwistle’s violin concerto for Christian Tetzlaff was 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, and 2015 brought a new music theatre work ‘The Cure’ performed in a double-bill with ‘The Corridor’ at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Royal Opera House in London. ‘Deep Time’ for orchestra, commissioned by the Berlin Staatsoper and BBC Radio 3 received first performances in 2017 in Berlin and at the BBC Proms. Smaller-scale works include ‘Intrada’ for piano and percussion, ‘Keyboard Engine’, for two pianos commissioned for Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich (2017), ‘Duet for Eight Strings’ for the Nash Ensemble (2018), ‘…when falling asleep’ for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (2019), ‘…old Man Asleep’ for the Reina Sofia School of Music (2020).
He passed away at his home in Wiltshire, in April 2022 at the age of 87. David Lancaster