Obituary: Harrison Birtwistle

The London Symphony Orchestra is saddened to hear of the death of the composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle on 18 April 2022 at the age of 87.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle dominated the British music scene for five decades, yet his relationship with the LSO really began only recently with the tenure of Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director. Simon Rattle has been championing Harry's music since the 1970s, when he chose to include Meridian in his first appearance at the BBC Proms (and it was the BBC Proms which brought Harry to wider attention in 1995 when Panic was programmed in the second half of the Last Night of the BBC Proms on BBC One, leading to the BBC switchboard becoming jammed with complaints!), and he made sure to include a piece of Harry's – the Violin Concerto performed by Christian Tetzlaff – in the first concert of his tenure in 2017, alongside other British composers Thomas Adès, Helen Grime, Edward Elgar and Oliver Knussen.

With 'New Music Britain' firmly established as Simon's regular season opener, the scene was set for a new commission. To celebrate the appointment of Sir Simon Rattle as Associate Artist of the Barbican Centre, the Barbican and the LSO commissioned a fanfare to open his second season, which Birtwistle named Donum Simoni MMXVIII, 'Simon's Gift'. It was a fanfare for orchestral brass, woodwind and percussion, only three minutes long but huge, and was premiered on 16 September 2018.

'A heavyweight among fanfares, it set us up for an evening of searing playing from the brass in particular, trumpets glowing up high, tuba chattering down low, wind and drums and bells joining in to make a great snarling rumble. The last word goes to the lone tuba, a deadpan sign-off adding a touch of humour.'
The Guardian

The piece was scheduled to have a further performance at the BBC Proms in 2020, sadly cancelled due to Covid.

Harrison Birtwistle was born in 1934, the year Elgar, Delius and Holst died, thus continuing the line of great British composers to this day. Though his music was uncompromising, abbrasive and often shocking, it is held in high esteem by musicians and though the demands on them are often highly technical and complex, his works have become standard repertoire. His mark on music and especially opera will be indelible. 

Everyone at the London Symphony Orchestra extends its sympathies to his family and friends, and his vast musical family, at this sad time.

Through the decades of postmodernism since 1970, Birtwistle’s music has remained resolutely modern in its dissonance, its formal complexity and freedom, its continuing innovation and its positively mechanistic use of pulse and repetition. At the same time it evokes a prehistory of monuments and ritual acts.

Born in Accrington in 1934, Birtwistle was a slow starter. Though he had played the clarinet and composed from boyhood, and though he found lively colleagues (notably Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr) at the Royal Manchester College of Music, he was into his thirties before he produced his first works of characteristic trenchancy, including Tragoedia (1965) for opposing wind and string chamber groups on the fulcrum of a harp. The heat went underground, subsumed in relative quiet and generative slowness, as he worked towards his opera The Mask of Orpheus (1973–86). While that was in progress he also wrote two big symphonic pieces (The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances) and much else, living partly in the Hebrides, partly in France.

In 1996, the year he completed a formidable cycle of Celan songs (Pulse Shadows), he moved to rural Wiltshire. Subsequent works, characteristically combining intensity with melancholy, have included encounters with classical genres.
Profile by Paul Griffiths