Harrison Birtwistle

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, CH (born 15 July 1934) is a British composer of contemporary classical music. Among his many compositions, he is best known for The Triumph of Time (1972) and his operas, particularly The Mask of Orpheus (1986), Gawain (1991) and The Minotaur (2008). The latter was ranked by music critics at The Guardian in 2019 as the third best piece of the 21st-century.[1]

Harrison Birtwistle in 2008 at the Vittoria Theater in Turin


Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington, a mill town in Lancashire around 20 miles north of Manchester.[2] Regarding his name, Birtwistle has stated that 'in some reference books my name is down as Harrison Paul, which it isn't, and never has been. I don't have a second name.'[3] His interest in music was encouraged by his mother, who bought him a clarinet when he was seven, and arranged for him to have lessons with the local bandmaster.[4] He became proficient enough to play in the local military-style band, and also played in the orchestra that accompanied Gilbert and Sullivan productions and the local choral society's performances of Messiah. Birtwistle composed from around this time, later describing his early pieces as "sub Vaughan Williams".[4]

In 1952 he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music in Manchester on a clarinet scholarship. While there he came in contact with contemporaries including Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. He then completed two years of National Service in the Royal Artillery (Plymouth) Band, based in Oswestry.[5] He served as Director of Music at Cranborne Chase School from 1962 until 1965, before continuing his studies at Princeton University on a Harkness Fellowship, where he completed the opera Punch and Judy. This work, together with Verses for Ensembles and The Triumph of Time, led to greater exposure for Birtwistle in the classical music world.[6]

In 1972 he wrote the accompanying music to The Offence, starring Sean Connery, his only film score.[7]

In 1975 Birtwistle became musical director of the newly established Royal National Theatre in London, a post he held until 1983. He received a knighthood (1988) and was made a Companion of Honour (2001). From 1994 to 2001 he was Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King's College London. Birtwistle was the 1987 recipient of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.[8]

Though well established in the classical music world, Birtwistle was relatively unknown to the general public until the mid-1990s, when two events increased his profile with the wider audience. In 1994 two anti-modernist musicians, Frederick Stocken and Keith Burstein, calling themselves "The Hecklers", organised a demonstration at the first night of a revival of his opera Gawain at the Royal Opera House, London.[9] The following year, Birtwistle's saxophone concertante work Panic was premiered in the second half of the Last Night of the Proms to an estimated worldwide television audience of 100 million.[10] According to the Daily Telegraph, it met with incomprehension from many viewers.[11]

In 1995 he was awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize.[12] At the 2006 Ivor Novello Awards he criticised pop musicians at the event for performing too loudly and using too many clichés.[13]

Birtwistle has a low media profile,[14] but gives interviews occasionally. In 2019 he was interviewed for Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3.[15]


Birtwistle's music is not categorised as belonging to any particular school or movement. For a time, he was described as belonging to the Manchester School, a phrase invented as a parallel to the Second Viennese School to refer to Birtwistle, Goehr and Davies. The phrase has since declined in use, since the three composers were united only by their early studies in Manchester, rather than a common musical style. Birtwistle's music is complex, written in a modernistic manner with a clear, distinctive voice.

His early work is sometimes evocative of Igor Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen, who he has acknowledged as influences, and his technique of juxtaposing blocks of sound is sometimes compared to that of 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 his style has developed.

Even when he is not writing a visual piece involving stage action, Birtwistle's music is frequently theatrical in conception.[16] 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 (1984). For various portions of the piece, a number of the instrumentalists perform in a 'soloist' capacity. For this, they leave their seat in the ensemble and stand separately, to one side of the ensemble, returning to the group when they are no longer given that role.

Personal life and familyEdit

His sons Adam Birtwistle and Silas Birtwistle are artists.

List of major worksEdit


Other worksEdit

  • Tragoedia, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp and string quartet (1965)
  • Nomos (1968), for orchestra
  • Verses for Ensembles (1968)
  • Down by the Greenwood Side (1969)
  • The Triumph of Time (1971–72), for orchestra
  • Grimethorpe Aria (1973), brass band
  • Silbury Air (1976–77), chamber orchestra
  • ...agm... (1978)
  • Secret Theatre, for chamber ensemble (1984)
  • Earth Dances (1986), for orchestra
  • Endless Parade (1986), for trumpet, vibraphone and strings
  • Antiphonies (1992), piano and orchestra
  • Panic (1995), alto saxophone, jazz drum kit and orchestra
  • Pulse Shadows (9 Movements for string quartet interleaved with 9 Settings of Celan) (1989–96)
  • The Axe Manual, for piano and percussion (2000)
  • Theseus Game, for large ensemble with two conductors (2002)
  • Angel Fighter (2010), dramatic cantata
  • String Quartet: Tree of Strings (2007)
  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2009–10)[17]
  • Gigue machine, for piano (2011)
  • In Broken Images (2011), for ensemble (after the antiphonal music of Gabrieli)[18]
  • The Moth Requiem (2012), for twelve female voices, three harps and flute[19]
  • Songs from the Same Earth (2012–13), for tenor and piano
  • Responses (2013–14), piano concerto[20]

Honours and awardsEdit


Commonwealth honoursEdit

Commonwealth honours
Country Date Appointment Post-nominal letters
  United Kingdom 1988 – Present Knight Bachelor[21] Kt
  United Kingdom 2001 – Present Order of the Companions of Honour[21] CH

Harrison Birtwistle was awarded a knighthood in the 1988 Queen's Birthday Honours List. He was awarded the Companionship of Honour (CH) in the 2001 New Years Honours List.

Foreign honoursEdit

Foreign honours
Country Date Decoration Post-nominal letters
  France 1986 – Present Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres [21]


University degrees
Location Date School Degree
  England Royal Manchester College of Music
Chancellor, visitor, governor, rector and fellowships
Location Date School Position
  England 1986 – Present Royal Academy of Music Fellow, Hon FRAM[22]
  England 1989 – Present Royal Northern College of Music Fellow[23]
Honorary degrees
Location Date School Degree Gave Commencement Address
  England 1994 University of Sussex Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[24]
  England 1996 City, University of London Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[25]
  England 2 December 2008 University of London Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[26]
  England 2010 University of Cambridge Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[27]
  England 2013 Bath Spa University Doctorate[28]
  England 25 June 2014 University of Oxford Doctor of Music (D.Mus.)[29]
  England 2014 Edge Hill University Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)[30]

Memberships and fellowshipsEdit

Location Date Organisation Position
  England 1975 – 1983 Royal National Theatre Musical Director
  England 1994 – Present Royal Academy of Arts Honorary Fellow [31]
  New York 2007 – Present American Academy of Arts and Letters Foreign Honorary Member [32]


  1. ^ Clements, Andrew; Maddocks, Fiona; Lewis, John; Molleson, Kate; Service, Tom; Jeal, Erica; Ashley, Tim (12 September 2019). "The best classical music works of the 21st century". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  2. ^ Michael Hall (1984), p. 4.
  3. ^ Harrison Birtwisle/Fiona Maddocks (2014), p. 10.
  4. ^ a b Hall (1984), p. 5.
  5. ^ N. Wilkins, Musical Encounters, London, 2018.
  6. ^ "Harrison Birtwistle Biography". musicianguide.com. Retrieved 14 February 2009.
  7. ^ "Full Cast and Crew list of the movie "The Offence" provided by IMDb".
  8. ^ "1987 – Harrison Birtwistle – Grawemeyer Awards".
  9. ^ David Lister, "First Night: Hecklers lose their first night joust: Gawain/The Hecklers Royal Opera House", The Independent, 15 April 1994; accessed 28 February 2011.
  10. ^ Tom Service, "Panic at the Proms", The Guardian, 10 August 2007; accessed 28 February 2011.
  11. ^ Hewett. Harrison Birtwistle: the welcome return of a Proms maverick
  12. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle". www.evs-musikstiftung.ch.
  13. ^ Nuala Calvi, "Winning composer booed off Ivors stage for criticising bands", The Stage, 26 May 2006, accessed 2 March 2011.
  14. ^ Maddocks, Fiona (3 May 2014). "Harrison Birtwistle: 'I don't think, with hindsight, I was a natural musician'". The Observer. London. Retrieved 9 November 2017.
  15. ^ "Composer of the Week". BBC.
  16. ^ Robert Adlington (2000), p. 38.
  17. ^ Boston Symphony Orchestra: Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (2010) Archived 25 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 8 March 2011.
  18. ^ Boosey & Hawkes: Andriessen & Birtwistle: premieres in Milan and Turin Archived 26 April 2017 at the Wayback Machine, accessed 18 August 2011.
  19. ^ "Rayfield Allied – Harrison Birtwistle world premiere: The Moth Requiem". Rayfieldallied.com. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  20. ^ "Rayfield Allied – Harrison Birtwistle". Rayfieldallied.com. Retrieved 4 May 2014.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g "Birtwistle". www.adk.de.
  22. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle". Royal Academy of Music.
  23. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle Wins British Composer Award - Royal Northern College of Music".
  24. ^ https://www.sussex.ac.uk/webteam/gateway/file.php?name=list-of-honorary-graduates.pdf&site=76
  25. ^ "Professor Sir Harrison Birtwistle". City, University of London. 23 November 2020.
  26. ^ "Rt Revd Lord Eames & Archbishop Tutu Honoured by University of London". Church of Ireland.
  27. ^ "Honorary degree 2010 nominations announced". University of Cambridge. 15 March 2010.
  28. ^ "Honorary Graduates". www.bathspa.ac.uk.
  29. ^ "Honorary degrees awarded | University of Oxford". www.ox.ac.uk.
  30. ^ "Honorary Awards".
  31. ^ "Sir Harrison Birtwistle | Artist | Royal Academy of Arts".
  32. ^ "Honorary Members – American Academy of Arts and Letters".


  • Adlington, Robert: The Music of Harrison Birtwistle. (Cambridge University Press, 2000.)
  • Beard, David: Harrison Birtwistle’s Operas and Music Theatre. Music Since 1900. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.) ISBN 978-0-521-89534-7
  • Beard, David; Gloag, Kenneth; Jones, Nicholas (editors): Harrison Birtwistle Studies (Cambridge University Press, 2015.)
  • Birtwistle, Harrison; Maddocks, Fiona: Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks - a conversation diary (Faber and Faber, 2014.)
  • Cross, J.: Harrison Birtwistle: Man, Mind, Music. (Faber & Faber, 2000.)
  • Hall, Michael: Harrison Birtwistle. (Robson Books, 1984.)
  • Hall, Michael: Harrison Birtwistle in Recent Years. (Robson Books, 1998.)
  • Wilkins, Nigel: 'Musical Encounters' (Austin Macaulay, 2018.)

External linksEdit