Harrison Birtwistle, ‘giant’ of contemporary classical music, dies aged 87


April 19, 2022, 11:57 | Updated: April 19, 2022, 12:26 PM

Harrison Birtwistle, “giant” of contemporary classical music, has died at the age of 87.

Photo: Aliyah

Harrison Birtwistle was one of Britain’s most famous contemporary classical composers.

The groundbreaking British composer Harrison Birtwistle, who won international acclaim for his 1972 composition The triumph of time and opera 2008 The Minotaurdied at the age of 87.

Birtwistle publisher Boosey & Hawkes confirmed the composer died at his home in Mere, South West England, on Monday April 18. No cause of death was given.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra described Birtwistle as a “true musical colossus” whose “music shook the earth”.

Birtwistle wrote in a plethora of musical forms, including chamber pieces, operas and film scores, The offense (1973) with Sean Connery, and had works staged by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Opera House and the English National Opera.

His opera The Minotaurwhich premiered at the Royal Opera House, was acclaimed by The Guardian in 2019 as the third best coin of the 21st century.

The Queen receives Sir Harrison Birtwistle to present him with the badge of Honor Companion at Buckingham Palace

The Queen receives Sir Harrison Birtwistle to present him with the badge of Honor at Buckingham Palace.

Photo: Aliyah

Born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1934, Birtwistle went on to study clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now Royal Northern College of Music) alongside his contemporary, Peter Maxwell Davies. In 1965, Birtwistle sold his clarinets and devoted himself solely to composition.

The great modernist became musical director of the Royal National Theater in London from 1975 to 1983, was knighted in 1988 and made a Companion of Honor in 2001, after seven years as Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King’s College London.

Birtwistle, whose musical influences included Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen and Erik Satie, was uncompromising and utterly unique in his style of composition. His best-known works, including the 1998 Exody created by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, employs complex rhythms and unconventional harmony, which delight and divide listeners.

Definitely nonconforming in both his music and his mannerisms, Birtwistle once told a room of pop musicians at the Ivor Novello Awards, “Why is your music so f****** loud?” accepting his 2006 award. “You must all be brain dead. Maybe you are. I didn’t know there were so many shots until the last half hour. Have fun. Goodbye.”

Pierre Boulez, one of the modernist’s greatest admirers, said: “Birtwistle’s music has a great power of conviction.

In tribute to the late great musician, British composer Thomas Adès quoted the composer as saying: “Harrison Birtwistle once said of Messiaen ‘when he dies the whole house of cards will collapse’. I kinda feel like he fell today.

The English National Opera, which staged Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus in 1986, said: “Everyone at ENO is heartbroken to learn of the death of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. His musical influence was unparalleled and we were proud to collaborate with him recently on The Mask of Orpheus.

In 2014, Birtwistle received his fifth Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award, making him the most honored RPS musician in history. “There was strength and power in every note he wrote,” wrote the RPS. “We will listen in awe to his works for decades to come.”

Birtwistle’s wife, Sheila Duff, died in 2012, and he is survived by his three sons and six grandchildren.


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