‘When you think of a work, you think of it as a complete thing, not as a succession of notes,’ Harrison Birtwistle told BBC Music Magazine in 2011. ‘You hear it in your mind. It’s like a ball of string, tied up and bound up in itself. You don’t need to tease it out. Then when I start writing, it all changes. It has to. But the idea has to be complete at the beginning, although at the end it has changed.’
In such a way did Birtwistle, who has died aged 87, describe a composing method that led to some of the most influential works of the late-20th and early-21st centuries, from vocal and chamber pieces such as Songs by Myself (1984) and Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and countertenor (2004) to large-scale orchestral works including The Triumph of Time (1972) and Earth Dances (1986) and operas ranging from 1967’s Punch and Judy to 2008’s The Minotaur. Often brash, percussive and uncompromising, his music could infuriate many – not least when his Panic for saxophone and orchestra caused uproar at the 1995 Last Night of the Proms – but also won him a wealth of admiring listeners, inspired countless performers and influenced many other composers. Immaculately crafted, it also had its own distinctive – if admittedly hard-won – beauty.
Born in Accrington, Lancashire, Birtwistle took up the clarinet as a child and went on to play in the Accrington military band. It was the clarinet that won him a scholarship to the Royal Manchester College of Music where he rubbed shoulders with composers Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies and Elgar Howarth and pianist John Ogdon and, with them, founded the New Music Manchester group, devoted to the performance of contemporary works. It was with Goehr and Maxwell Davies that he set up two summer schools at Wardour Castle in Dorset, the second of which, in 1965, saw the premiere of his Tragoedia. This 20-minute ensemble piece would set the blueprint for much of his work in the future, including a fascination with Greek myth and a characteristic soundworld derived in part from the juxtaposition of disparate blocks of material and an almost hypnotic use of repetition.
The following five decades saw a continual stream of acclaimed works for different forces. Operas such as the quirky The Second Mrs Kong (1994) and The Minotaur would guarantee full houses and other pieces would be showered with prizes – Birtwistle won more British Composer Awards and Royal Philharmonic Society Awards than any other musician, while in 2012, The Hallé’s disc of his Night’s Black Bird, The Shadow of Night and The Cry of Anubis won the BBC Music Magazine Premiere Recording award.
Ironically, given that he was invited to and dutifully attended so many award ceremonies, such occasions were not a natural stamping ground for the quietly spoken, undemonstrative Birtwistle – a day at the cricket was his preferred option. Similarly, though he did give thoughtful and eloquent interviews, this was a composer whose most powerful utterances lay in his music itself.
Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.