Harrison Birtwistle, one of Britain’s greatest songwriters, has died aged 87. Birtwistle’s compositions of uncompromising modernism – ranging from large-scale grand opera to intimate pieces for solo piano – have dominated British music for more than five decades. He was born in Accrington in 1934 and as a young clarinetist played in theater orchestras and began to compose. He studied in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music, where, with fellow students Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies, he was part of an explosion of musical creativity and belonged to a group once called “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 many of its audiences, including the festival’s founder. Benjamin Britten who apparently left in the meantime. (Birtwistle himself conducted a revival of the opera at the festival in June 1991.) The Triumph of Time, in 1972, based on a woodcut of the same name by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, secured its international reputation and remains one of his best-known works.
In 1975 Birtwistle became musical director of the new 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 was knighted in 1988 and made a Companion of Honor in 2001.
While Birtwistle’s dissonant, jagged music may sound uncompromisingly aggressive, it also packs a huge emotional punch and is uplifting and complex. Much of his work drew on his love of poetry and language and he drew inspiration from myths, rituals and folklore. An opera, Gawain, took the Middle English Arthurian Knight Novel as source; 2008’s The Minotaur told the Greek legend and The Mask of Orpheus (1986) explored the myth of Orpheus.
He rose to national prominence in 1995 when his saxophone concerto, Panic, premiered at the Last Night of the Proms. The work – the first piece of contemporary music to ever appear on a Last Night program – had been scheduled for the second half of the concert, and was therefore broadcast live on a Saturday evening to millions of viewers on BBC One. The work’s abrasive energy and raucous, violent sound world have been called a “horrific cacophony” by some critics and the BBC standard was plagued with complaints from viewers that their ears had been assaulted.
Birtwistle continued to compose into her 70s and 80s. Her 2019 Duo for eight strings was nominated for a Basca-Composers’ Ivors 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 finest and most intensely personal of his recent scores,” wrote Andrew Clements of The Guardian. Many conductors have championed his music, including Pierre Boulez, Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim and Antonio Pappano.
Among those who paid tribute on Twitter were Roger Wright of Aldeburgh Music and bandleader Nicholas Collon, who said “what a visionary, what a virtuoso, what an inspiration”. australian composer Lisa Lim wrote: “He was a crucial composer for me: Secret Theatre, Earth Dances, Mask of Orpheus among 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, unwavering music that permeates the soul and captures what it is to be human in these times.”