|This year – 15 July, to be precise – is Harrison Birtwistle’s 78th birthday. He is one of the leading European figures in contemporary music. Birtwistle’s music is devilishly difficult to play and has floored conductors and musicians alike but, says Joanna McGregor, even his most fearful pieces are meant to be fun
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Sir Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in the north of England in 1934 and studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, making contact with a highly talented group of contemporaries including Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. In 1965 he sold his clarinets to devote all 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, staged by English National Opera in 1986, and by the series of remarkable ensemble scores now performed by the world’s leading new music groups: Secret Theatre, Silbury Air and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Large-scale works in the following decade included the operas Gawain and The Second Mrs Kong, the concertos Endless Parade for trumpet and Antiphonies for piano, and the orchestral score Earth Dances.
Birtwistle’s works of recent decades include Exody, premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, Panic which received a high profile premiere at the Last Night of the 1995 BBC Proms with an estimated worldwide audience of 100 million, and The Shadow of Night commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi. Pulse Shadows, a meditation for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble on poetry by Paul Celan, was premiered in 1996 and The Last Supper received its first performances at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and at Glyndebourne in 2000. Theseus Game was premiered in 2003 and the following year brought first performances of The Io Passion for Aldeburgh Almeida Opera and Night’s Black Bird commissioned by Roche for the Lucerne Festival. His opera The Minotaur received its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2008 and has been released on DVD by Opus Arte. His music theatre work The Corridor opened the Aldeburgh Festival in 2009, with a further staging at the Holland Festival the following year. Angel-Fighter for voices and ensemble was premiered at the Leipzig BachFest in 2010, and Christian Tetzlaff premiered Concerto for Violin and Orchestra with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011.
The music of Birtwistle has attracted international conductors including Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Elgar Howarth, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst and Sir Antonio Pappano. He has received commissions from leading performing organisations and his music has been featured in major festivals and concert series including the BBC Proms, Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Holland Festival, Lucerne Festival, Stockholm New Music, Wien Modern, Wittener Tage, the South Bank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Vienna and Settembre Musica in Turin and Milan.
Birtwistle has received many honours, including the Grawemeyer Award in 1968 and the Siemens Prize in 1995; he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, awarded a British knighthood in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He was Henry Purcell Professor of Music at King’s College, University of London (1995-2001) and was Director of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Recordings of Birtwistle’s music are available on the Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, NMC, CPO and Soundcircus labels, with discs of Pulse Shadows on Teldec and Night’s Black Bird on NMC winning Gramophone Awards in 2002 and 2011.
Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes
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