Harrison Birtwistle Facts
Sir Harrison Birtwistle (born 1934) is one of the most challenging, original, and controversial musicians of his generation. Though angular and modern, his work nevertheless is indebted to tradition. Birtwistle composes music for a variety of ensembles, but remains best known for his stage operas. His most famous opera is perhaps his massive medieval work Gawain (1991).
Harrison Birtwistle, the son of Frederick and Margaret Harrison Birtwistle, was born on July 15, 1934, in the Lancashire industrial town of Accrington in northern England. Interested in music early on, Birtwistle began taking clarinet lessons at the age of seven with a local bandmaster. Soon thereafter, he joined the Accrington military band and later played for local drama society performances. Although he had few encounters with contemporary music and little access to classical scores as a child, Birtwistle started composing his own music at around age eleven. "I think what I'd always wanted to do, right from the beginning, was to write music," he once claimed, as quoted by biographer Michael Hall.
The New Music Manchester Group
It was as a clarinetist that Birtwistle won a scholarship in 1952 to attend the Royal Manchester College of Music (now known as the Royal Northern College of Music), where he studied the clarinet with Frederick Thurston and composition with Richard Hall. He also delved further into contemporary music, making contact with a highly talented group of fellow students that included composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, pianist John Ogden, and trumpeter and conductor Elgar Howarth. Together, they formed in 1953 the "New Music Manchester Group," dedicating themselves to performances of the works of Schoenburg, Webern, and others. The Manchester group proved groundbreaking in many ways. Uninhibited by the constraints of convention, they enthusiastically embraced the European avant-garde, forever altering the face of British music.
However, the Manchester group did not intend to abandon tradition altogether. Like his colleagues, Birtwistle was opposed to the goal orientation found in classical or romantic music, but still believed in the preservation of continuity and a sense of line. In contrast to the Darmstadt school, which produced mostly static music, Birtwistle wanted his pieces to feel active and move freely without heed of destination. "I make up a set of rules, then rub them out," he once said of his approach, as quoted in the National Review, "and don't tell you what they are." Birtwistle published his first work, Refrains and Choruses, for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, in 1957. It was first performed on July 11, 1959, in Cheltenham, England, by the Portia Wind Ensemble.
In the late-1950s and early-1960s, Birtwistle both composed and taught music. From 1962 until 1965, he served as director of music at the Cranborne Chase School. His compositions during this period included Monody for Corpus Christi (1959), for soprano, flute, horn, and violin; Precis (1960), a piano solo; Entr'actes (1962), for flute, viola, and harp; Chorales for Orchestra (1963); and Three Movements for Fanfares (1964), for chamber orchestra. In 1965, Birtwistle completed his first critical success, Tragogoedia, for wind quintet, string quartet, and harp. The Melos Ensemble, under conductor Lawrence Foster, premiered the work that same year at Wardour Castle.
Devoted to Composing
1965 marked a turning point in Birtwistle's career, as he sold all his clarinets to devote himself entirely to composing. In 1966, as a Harkness fellow, he traveled to Princeton University in the United States, where he completed his 1967 opera Punch and Judy, a one-act tragic comedy. This major accomplishment, along with Verses for Ensembles, for woodwind, brass, and percussion (1969), and The Triumph of Time, an orchestral piece (1972), firmly established Birtwistle as a leading voice in modern British music.
From 1973 to 1974, Birtwistle took a position as visiting professor of music at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College and in 1975, served as a visiting professor at New York State University, Buffalo. Afterwards, he returned to Great Britain as associate director of the National Theatre, South Bank, London, a position lasting until 1983. While with the National Theatre, Birtwistle composed several instrumental pieces for production, including Bow Down (1977), a work for five actors and four musicians with text by Tony Harrison. As for Birtwistle's other composing endeavors, the early-1970s through the mid-1980s were largely dominated by his monumental lyric tragedy The Mask of Orpheus, based on the myth of Orpheus. He finished the first two acts in 1975 and wrote the third between 1981 and 1984. On May 21, 1986, the work premiered at the English National Opera in London.
In the 1980s, Birtwistle also dabbled with electronic and computer-generated materials and other medium in an attempt to create his vision of a total theater. Sometimes, the extreme measure almost seemed unworkable. For instance, in The Mask of Orpheus Birtwistle included several electronic inserts wherein dancers acted out the stories of Orpheus told to animals, rocks, and trees from his mountaintop. Further, the action plays out at an accelerated pace, similar to that found in the films of Mack Sennett, Max Linder, Buster Keaton, or Charlie Chaplin. Although not impossible to stage, the work has often presented problems for directors unable to cope with Birtwistle's stylized procedures.
Birtwistle followed The Mask of Orpheus with a series of ensemble scores and operas performed by the world's most renowned new music groups. The mechanical pastoral piece Yan Tan Tera and The Secret Theatre, for 14 players, both from 1984, proved highly successful, as did the 1986 orchestral score Earth Dances. In 1991, Birtwistle completed his most famous work, Gawain, an opera in two acts based on the allegorical medieval poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Conducted by Elgar Howarth, it premiered on May 30 of that year at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. "His score is grainy, provocative and, often, mesmerizing," concluded a 1991 review in the Economist. "He has a remarkable ear for gripping sonorities, quirky rhythms and strange, keening melodies. The combination makes Gawain a powerful, indeed unforgettable experience."
Birtwistle's next opera, The Second Mrs. Kong, set to a libretto by American writer Russell Hoban, was completed in 1994 and opened that year under Howarth at the Glyndebourne Touring Opera on October 24. Covering a range of multi-layered territory, The Second Mrs. Kong stretches through the mythic underworld of the past to present-day London. The setting—complete with skinheads, computers, and a high-tech penthouse—serves as the backdrop to a romance between King Kong, from the classic 1933 film, and Pearl, the subject of a Vermeer painting entitled "Girl with Pearl Earring."
The remainder of the 1990s and beyond garnered Birtwistle continued recognition. Panic (1995), a score for saxophone, drums, and orchestra, received a high profile when it played for an audience of some 100 million people worldwide during the BBC Proms in 1995. His orchestral work, Exody (1998), was premiered by Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 5 of that year to critical favor. Harrison's Clocks (1998), a piano solo written for Joanna MacGregor, performed in its entirety for the first time on July 13, 1998, in Cheltenham. It also earned acclaim. Written in 1998 and 1999, Birtwistle's recent stage work The Last Supper premiered at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin on April 18, 2000. Forthcoming projects include a work for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, as well as stage works for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Over the course of his career, Birtwistle won numerous awards and honors, including the Grawemeyer Award and the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, both in 1986; a British knighthood, 1988; the Siemens Prize, 1995; and a British Companion of Honor, 2001. From 1993 through 1998, Birtwistle served as composer-in-residence for the London Philharmonic and continued teaching. He was a Henry Purcell professor of music at King's College of Music in London, from 1995 until 2001, then became director of composition at the Royal College of Music in London. The music of Birtwistle attracted esteemed conductors from all over the world, among them Howarth, Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Peter Eotvos, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, and Christoph von Dohnanyi.
In spite of such attention, Birtwistle never courted popularity or worried about critical reaction to his work. "If they don't like it, that's their problem," he told the Economist in 1994. "I'm not trying to be difficult. I write the stuff as clearly as I can." Birtwistle married Sheila Margaret Wilhelmina in 1958. The couple had three sons: Adam, born in 1959; Silas, born in 1963; and Thomas, born in 1965.
Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Cross, Jonathan, Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music, Cornell University Press, 2000.
Debrett's People of Today, Debrett's Peerage, 2001.
Hall, Michael, Harrison Birtwistle, Robson, 1984.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James Press, 1993.
Economist, June 8, 1991; November 12, 1994.
National Review, March 30, 1992.
Notes, June 1996.
Opera News, July 1994; October 1997.