Obituaries: Sir Harrison Birtwistle, British composer whose work divided opinion

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, composer. Born: 15 July 1934 in Accrington, Lancashire. Died: 18 April, 2022 in Mere, Wiltshire, aged 87

The composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who has died at the age of 87, found his natural environment among the same Manchester-based student hotbed of the 1950s as fellow modernists Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, pianist John Ogden and trumpeter/composer Elgar Howarth.

Being northern, plain-speaking, brusquely honest and fiercely individual would have been ideal credentials for membership of a group - the so-called New Manchester School - dedicated to shocking the establishment with ideas and techniques imported from such progressive European centres as Paris and Darmstadt. Those self-same attributes were also set to inform the uncompromising nature of a personal musical canon that was to define Birtwistle as one of Britain’s most influential, enigmatic and distinctive voices.

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He will most notoriously be remembered for the Succès de scandal of Panic, a work commissioned for the 1995 Last Night of the Proms. Broadcast live to a global audience, the BBC’s switchboard was jammed by complainants whose evening of expectant jingoism and tunefulness had been so viciously hijacked by what one critic described as “a horrible cacophony”. Birtwistle expected nothing less, taking much satisfaction from having trodden “in a sacred cow and the attendant manure”.

One of Sir Harrison’s compositions outraged some Last Night of the Proms fans (Picture: Mykel Nicolaou/Shutterstock)One of Sir Harrison’s compositions outraged some Last Night of the Proms fans (Picture: Mykel Nicolaou/Shutterstock)
One of Sir Harrison’s compositions outraged some Last Night of the Proms fans (Picture: Mykel Nicolaou/Shutterstock)

More open-minded commentators recognised the work’s blatant provocativeness, but also the aesthetic value expressed in a Dionysian “dithyramb” dominated by its wild saxophone solo identifying as the god Pan and his ecstatic hold over the animals of the night. In much of his music, before and after, Birtwistle was to find endless inspiration from such mythical creatures, a conduit through which he was most comfortable expressing deep human emotions.

That’s a side of him, his inner spirituality, that so often lurked unnoticed behind the gruff exterior. Take his brutal interview style. When asked a deep and meaningful question by one journalist, he replied after a yawning silence, “nice shoes”. He rocked the boat again at the 2006 Ivor Novello Awards when, after enduring standard acceptance speeches by the pop industry’s lovelies, immortalised his own acceptance of the classical music prize by stating “I’ve never heard so many clichés in a single day”, signing off with the killer observation, “and why is all your music so f***ing loud?”.

So yes, he played the enfant terrible card even into his later years, just as his music - hard-edged and punishingly dissonant - continued to divide public opinion. His earliest works he described as “sub-Vaughan Williams”, soon to be cast aside by his exposure in Manchester to the radicalism of Boulez and Stockhausen.

His official Op 1, Refrains and Choruses of 1957, gained Birtwistle a billing in the 1959 Cheltenham Festival, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that he came into more regular prominence. Tragoedia of 1965, a chamber work notable for its unyielding solo horn writing, was a bombastic calling card. His first full-length opera, Punch and Judy, quizzically labelled a “tragical comedy or comical tragedy” when it premiered at the 1969 Aldeburgh Festival, made no concessions to its violent plot. It soon became a worldwide hit.

It’s easy to typecast the Accrington lad, born in the Lancashire mill town in 1934, as a bit of northern rough, but that is to ignore the determination of an only child - a self-confessed loner - whose early interest in music was to widen life’s horizons on his own terms.

His parents - First World War veteran Fred and mother Madge (nèe Harrison - explaining Birtwistle’s seemingly grandiose christian name) - ran a bakery. At the age of seven his mother, recognising his musical leanings, bought him a clarinet and he joined the local military band. A youthful interest in the theatre found him constructing his own theatrical sets, a passion that would have informed his later role in life when Sir Peter Hall appointed him music director of London’s newly established Royal National Theatre in 1975.

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Hearing Schubert at home on the radio and being bowled over by the orchestral music of Debussy furthered fuelled his musical curiosity. Lessons from a Hallé Orchestra clarinettist led to a scholarship at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he studied with Frederick Thurston, but where his encounter with Goehr’s progressive coterie turned his aspirations towards composition.

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Establishing himself in that field took time. Meantime he served his National Service (1955-57) as a clarinettist in the Royal Artillery Band at Oswestry, and earned a living variously as a builder, music copyist and, in 1962, as director of music at Cranborne Chase School in Dorset. He met and married the singer Sheila Duff, who predeceased him in 2012. They are survived by three sons: artist Adam, sculptor Silas and architect Toby.

In 1965, in the footsteps of Maxwell Davies, he won a prestigious Harkness Fellowship to study at Princeton University in America. From that came the success of Punch and Judy, then back in the UK a steady production line of attention-grabbing works, kick-started by Nenia: The Death of Orpheus and its spin-off operatic masterpiece The Mask for Orpheus, premiered by English National Opera in 1986 and most recently restaged in 2019.

Notable among his non-operatic output were the exuberant orchestral Earth Dances, premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra at the 1994 Proms, and the idiosyncratic vocal work The Moth Requiem (reflecting his Lepidopterist leanings) of 2012 that imagines the experience of a moth trapped inside a piano.

Birtwistle, while entertainingly irascible in public, was at his most comfortable composing alone in the garden shed at his Wiltshire home. The progressive softening of expression in his later works seem to reflect that, though puckish self-containment never left him

The actor Simon Callow, whom Birtwistle tutored to play a convincing pianist on the National Theatre stage, recalled recently that when “Harry” had his palace knighthood conferred on him in 1988 the band struck up, in perfect response, “I did it my way”.


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