Harrison Birtwistle

Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Paul Birtwistle CH (born 15 July, 1934) is a British contemporary composer.


Birtwistle was born in Accrington in Lancashire and in 1952 entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in Manchester on a clarinet scholarship. While there he met fellow composers Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, who, together with pianist John Ogdon and conductor Elgar Howarth, formed the "New Music Manchester" group, dedicated to the performances of serial and other modern works.

Birtwistle left the college in 1955 then studied at the Royal Academy of Music and afterwards made a living as a schoolteacher. In 1965 a Harkness Fellowship gave him the opportunity to continue his studies in the United States [http://www.musicianguide.com/biographies/1608003326/Harrison-Birtwistle.html] and he decided to dedicate himself to composition.

In 1975 Birtwistle became musical director of the newly-established Royal National Theatre in London, a post he held until 1983. He has been honoured with a knighthood (1988) and as a Companion of Honour (2001). From 1994 to 2001 he was "Henry Purcell Professor of Composition" at King's College London.

At the 2006 Ivor Novello Awards he criticised pop musicians at the event for performing too loudly and using too many clichés. [http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/newsstory.php/12741/winning-composer-booed-off-ivors-stage-for]


It would not be easy to fit Birtwistle into any sort of 'school' or 'movement'. For a time he would be referred to as a part of the 'Manchester School', a phrase invented as a parallel to the "Second Viennese School" to refer to Birtwistle, Goehr and Maxwell Davies. The phrase has, however, since fallen out of use since the three composers were united only by their early studies in Manchester, not by musical style. His music is complex, written in a modernistic style with a clear, distinctive voice. His early work is sometimes evocative of Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen (composers he has acknowledged as influences) and his technique of juxtaposing blocks of sound is sometimes compared to Edgard Varèse. His early pieces made frequent use of ostinati and often had a ritualistic feel. These have been toned down in recent decades as he has adapted and transformed the techniques into more subtle methods. With its strong emphasis on rhythm, the music is often described as brutal or violent, but this analysis mistakes the strong sound world for an attempt to evoke violent actions. The explicit violence of his first opera "Punch and Judy" — in which the murder of Judy by her husband is so much more shocking when performed live on stage rather than by glove puppets in the classic British seaside entertainment — can easily be misinterpreted as a clue to the intention of his abstract music. The style is stark and uncompromising.

His favourite image for explaining how his pieces work is to compare them to taking a walk through a town—especially the sort of small town more common in continental Europe than Great Britain. Such a walk might start in the town square. Having explored its main features, we would set off down one of the side streets. As the walk continues, we might glimpse the town square down different streets, sometime a long way off, other times quite close. We may never return to the square in the rest of the walk or we may visit a new part of it that was not explored initially. Birtwistle suggests that this experience is akin to what he does in the music. His image conveys the way that a core musical idea is altered, varied and distorted as the piece of music progresses. The core music forms a reference point to which everything else is directed, even when we are walking in a completely different direction. Sometimes we will be less aware that it is the same musical material we are hearing; sometimes we may have been listening for a while before realising that we have heard this music before (just as one might have been looking up the street before realising that it is the town square that can be glimpsed through the traffic). He is "not", therefore, suggesting that we imagine this walk through the town as a literal explanation of what is happening in the music; he does not 'recreate' the effect in the music (as Charles Ives does in some of his orchestral pieces).

An early variant of this technique involved literally cutting up the music, the most blatant example being "Verses for Ensembles". Having composed a portion of music, Birtwistle would then cut it arbitrarily into a number of sections, which he then rearranged randomly. He would then add introductions, epilogues and music to link them together. This method was intended to give the whole piece unity, by having musical material with its own inner coherence scattered amongst musical material that still related to the core material but did not necessarily relate to itself.

Birtwistle's method of working is also reflected in the events of the first Act of his opera "Gawain". Up to the point where the Green Knight is kneeling in front of Gawain awaiting the axe blow that will cut off his head, the action has proceeded mainly in chronological order. With Gawain holding the axe aloft, the stage is suddenly blacked out and, within a minute, the action has been rewound to the point preceding the Green Knight's entry to the Court of Arthur. Events are played through again, though compressed and with various small alterations, through the beheading and into the subsequent events. The events on stage are not randomly ordered, but the one event is portrayed from more than one perspective. For the opera "The Mask of Orpheus" this entailed two sets of singer/actors performing contradictory versions of the one event from the Orpheus myths. This non-linear portrayal of events on stage gives the listener a means of approach to the abstract compositions, with the same musical ideas being repeated but with extensive variation. The result is music that is often very episodic in structure. A clear example occurs in "Silbury Air" in which a readily identifiable music motif — a blow from the tom-toms followed by scurrying figures from the strings and woodwind — is elaborated in a number of different ways as the piece progresses.

As a result, even when he is not writing a visual piece involving stage action, Birstwistle's music is frequently described as dramatic in construction. The music does not follow the logic and rules of classical forms such as sonata form, but is structured more like a drama. Furthermore, different musical instruments can almost be seen to take the part of different characters in the drama. This is especially apparent in a performance of "Secret Theatre". For various portions of the piece, a number of the instrumentalists perform in a 'soloist' capacity. For this they leave their normal seat in the orchestral group and stand in a typical concerto soloist's position, returning to the orchestra when they are no longer given that priority. Though not normally signalled by a change of position, this sort of changing role is constantly seen in his music. Related to this is the use of geological imagery to explain the structure of his 1986 orchestral piece "Earth Dances". A number of different layers of musical material are present. At any one time a layer might be to the fore, while at other times it might be buried deep beneath the other layers and no longer as apparent.

Popular perception

Though well established and widely respected in the classical music world — modules on his music now feature in many university undergraduate music courses — Birtwistle was relatively unknown to the general public until the mid-1990s. Although he had been honoured with a knighthood in 1988, two events brought him to public attention.

A group of anti-modernist musicians, led by Frederick Stocken and calling themselves 'The Hecklers', attempted to disrupt the first night of the 1994 revival of "Gawain" at the Royal Opera House, London. Having remained silent throughout the performance, their strategically placed sympathisers broke into a tirade of catcalls at the conclusion in an attempt to draw attention to their campaign to rid contemporary music of anything post-Romantic. The event, however, backfired on them, for it turned a relatively unimportant revival for the opera house into an event that many more people were keen to attend.

Birtwistle gained particular notoriety in 1995 when "Panic" was premièred at that year's Last Night of the Proms. His music had not previously been heard in so public a forum and most of the press did not hold back its negative criticism of the piece. Although the first half of the concert incorporates pieces that reflect the overall theme of each year's season, such an uncompromising piece had not previously been programmed, let alone in the second half, which traditionally features mainstream, popular and patriotic music.

List of major works

"For a comprehensive list, see List of compositions by Harrison Birtwistle".
*"Refrains and Choruses" (1957), wind quintet
*"Punch and Judy" (1967), opera
*"Down by the Greenwood Side" (1969), opera
*"Nenia: The Death of Orpheus" (1970)
*"The Triumph of Time" (1971), orchestra
*"The Offence" (1972), film score
*"Grimethorpe Aria" (1973), brass band
*"Silbury Air" (1976–77), chamber orchestra
*"The Mask of Orpheus" (1984), opera and tape, winner of the 1987 Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition.
*"Earth Dances" (1986), orchestra
*"Harrison's Clocks" (1998), piano
*"Gawain" (1990), opera
*"Antiphonies" (1992), piano and orchestra
*"The Second Mrs Kong" (1994), opera
*"Panic" (1995), alto saxophone, jazz drum kit and orchestra
*"The Last Supper" (2000), opera
*"The Minotaur" (2008), opera


*Adlington, R., "The Music of Harrison Birtwistle" (CUP, 2000)
*Cross, J., "Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music" (Faber & Faber, 2000)
*Hall, M., "Harrison Birtwistle" (Robson Books, 1984)
*Hall, M., "Harrison Birtwistle in Recent Years" (Robson Books, 1998)

External links

* [http://www.boosey.com/pages/cr/composer/composer_main.asp?composerid=2729&langid=1&ttype=BIOGRAPHY&ttitle=Biography Biography on publisher's website]
* [http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/portrait.asp?search=ss&sText=harrison+birtwistle&LinkID=mp06058&rNo=2&role=si Photographs in the National Portrait Gallery]
* [http://www.bellperc.com/pages/repertoire.php?composer=37 Birtwistle's Percussion Repertoire] , from Bell Percussion's Composer Repertoire resource
*Service, Tom. " [http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2272401,00.html The Beast Within] ". "The Guardian," 11 April 2008. An interview with Birtwistle about "The Minotaur."

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