Harrison Birtwistle (1934 - 2022)


"Birtwistle is a towering figure in British music. His language, though complex and modernistic, is distinctive and exhilarating"

Anthony Tommasini, New York Times

"A great original ... one of the most gifted composers of his generation"

The Times

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 by the 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. Other major works include Theseus Game for large ensemble and two conductors, Neruda Madrigales for chorus and instruments, Angel Fighter and In Broken Images. Smaller-scale pieces include Pulse Shadows, the cycle of piano works Harrison’s Clocks, Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and countertenor, stage works The Corridor, The Io Passion, Tree of Strings for string quartet, The Moth Requiem for female voices and instruments and Songs from the Same Earth for tenor and piano.

The music of Birtwistle has attracted international conductors including Stefan Asbury, David Atherton, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Nicholas Collon, Christoph von Dohnányi, Peter Eötvös, Edward Gardner, Elgar Howarth, Daniel Harding, Vladimir Jurowski, Oliver Knussen, Ingo Metzmacher, Sir Antonio Pappano, Sir Simon Rattle, David Robertson, Robin Ticciati, Franz Welser-Möst, and Ryan Wigglesworth. He has received commissions from leading performing organizations, and his music has been featured in major festivals and concert series in Europe, the USA and Japan. Birtwistle has 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, touring internationally with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, 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 conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin and at the BBC Proms. Smaller-scale works include Intrada for piano and percussion, a duo for Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges (2015), Keyboard Engine, construction 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.

Harrison Birtwistle is published by Boosey & Hawkes and Universal Edition.

Please click here for Harrison Birtwistle's timeline

This biography is for information only and should not be reproduced.

Selected reviews of works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Click here to download selected reviews.

Obituaries and Tributes following the death of Sir Harrison Birtwistle in April 2022

The Times

Richard Morrison tribute in The Times

Andrew Clements tribute in The Guardian

Financial Times

The New York Times

Ivan Hewett's obituary in The Guardian

A reflection on a life by Jonathan Cross


Harrison Birtwistle, a tribute for the London Sinfonietta by Nicholas Snowman

The Music of Myth - Andrew Clements pays tribute Harrison Birtwistle in Opera June 2022 edition

'How that music was created remains to me a complete mystery': John Tomlinson on fellow Lancastrian Harrison Birtwistle, The Arts Desk May 2022

The Wound in the Score - Kate Molleson pays tribute to Harrison Birtwistle in Prospect Magazine, June 2022

BBC Music Magazine - 'Composer of the Month', August 2022

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2019

Harrison Birtwistle Opera Now (January 2019 Issue)

Harrison Birtwistle's 85th birthday performances

Interview with Harrison Birtwistle and Martyn Brabbins in the Sunday Times, October 2019

The Guardian's best classical music works of the 21st Century

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2018

Harrison Birtwistle BASCA Awards (December 2018)

Harrison Birtwistle RA Magazine (Winter 2018 issue; interview with Phyllida Barlow & Fiona Maddocks)

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2017

Harrison Birtwistle The Herald (January 2017)

Harrison Birtwistle The Telegraph (July 2017)

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2016

Harrison Birtwistle Gramophone Article (March 2016)

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2014

Harrison Birtwistle Opera Now Article (May 2014)

Harrison Birtwistle The Spectator Article (May 2014)

Harrison Birtwistle BBC Music Magazine Interview with James Naughtie (July 2014)

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2013

Harrison Birtwistle BBC Music Magazine British Composer Award (February 2013)

Harrison Birtwistle Gramophone Article (October 2013)

Articles about Harrison Birtwistle 2011- 2012

Tom Service's Guide to Harrison Birtwistle's Music

Harrison Birtwistle BBC Music Magazine Composer of the Month (March 2011)

Ivan Hewitt writes about Harrison Birtwistle in the Daily Telegraph (September 2011)

Tom Service on Harrison Birtwistle and myth in The Guardian (June 2012)

Harrison Birtwistle List of Compositions

List of Compositions - Boosey & Hawkes

List of Compositions - Universal Edition

Harrison Birtwistle Discography


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