Harrison Birtwistle has been director of music at the National Theatre and Henry Purcell professor of composition at King’s College, London; he has had major operas premiered at the Coliseum, Covent Garden and Glyndebourne; he was knighted in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He is Sir Harrison Birtwistle CH – an honoured figure, one might think, in the very heart of the British Establishment. In it, perhaps, but emphatically not of it, for there is little one could ever describe as conformist about the man or his music – or the way in which he became a composer.

Harrison Birtwistle's first steps into composition

‘He wore a small hat with a feather in it, and had a fishing fly in his pocket,’ composer Alexander Goehr recalls of their first meeting as fellow students at the old Royal College of Music in Manchester around 1952. It transpired that while growing up on a smallholding on the outskirts of Accrington, young Birtwistle had made sporadic attempts to compose in a style that vaguely resembled Vaughan Williams, but that he was now concentrating on his clarinet studies. That this taciturn country boy would eventually emerge as one of the most widely performed and praised modernist composers of his age, recipient of such international tributes as the Grawemayer Award, the Siemens Prize and a Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, would have seemed unimaginable.

Birtwistle's studies in Manchester

Evidently he found it difficult to compose at all during his Manchester years. Maybe he felt inhibited by the loquacious Goehr’s know-how and the fluent intensity of their other young Manchester co-student Peter Maxwell Davies. More likely, he was still groping for technical means to realise a musical vision that was quite different from theirs.

‘You never have it all,’ Sir Michael Tippett used to tell young composers: meaning that while a beginner may find he or she has a natural gift for melody or rhythm, a comparable grasp of harmony or structure may have to be struggled for – a process that can take years of formal study or trial and error. Birtwistle’s typically radical response to this problem was to ignore the many things he could not do and concentrate exclusively on the few things he could, seeing how far these alone could be pushed.

In this, he perhaps most nearly approached the position of the young Stravinsky, who seems to have realised early on that he had little talent for the surging emotional continuities of such late Romantics as Strauss or Rachmaninov, and resorted, instead, to an utterly opposite anti-expressive technique of juxtaposing contrasting blocks of material within rigid grids of rhythm.

CAMBRIDGE - NOVEMBER 29: Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a great British composer and one of the leading European figures in contemporary music, is in residence at Harvard this term, and there is an all-Britwistle concert planned for this week. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Birtwistle's musical influences

Certainly Stravinsky was one of a handful of composers who, by their example, helped Birtwistle find himself. Others were Edgard Varèse and Olivier Messiaen – largely for their own extensions of Stravinskian techniques – and Erik Satie, whose Trois gymnopédies Birtwistle likened to viewing the same musical ‘object’ from three different angles.

What all these composers shared, and what Birtwistle sensed in himself, was a concept of musical time quite distinct from what he called the ‘goal-directed’ time of the Western Classical and Romantic mainstream in recent centuries. Composers such as Beethoven, Wagner and Schoenberg had typically developed their musical materials symphonically to create momentum and direction, tension and release, each time carrying their listeners forward on a journey to a point of arrival and resolution. By contrast, Birtwistle cleaved to a more ancient ‘circular’ sense of time – analogous to the ever-repeating life-cycle, or the turning of the seasons – in which specific ideas or events may come round again and again, though always in a slightly different guise.

The structure of Birtwistle's music

Certainly the few techniques he had at his disposal, and which led to his resumption of composing in 1957, were all implicitly ‘anti-developmental’. These included melodic lines that fanned out and then closed back around a central pitch; harmony created by secondary lines roughly paralleling the main line; time ticked out by variously related pulses or revolving repeat-patterns – the resulting blocks of textures assembled in collage-like sequences or lodged in additive verse-refrain forms. It took a little time for the implications of his style to register with the new-music audience and then the musical public at

We named Harrison Birtwistle as one of the greatest English composers of all time

The perception of Birtwistle from the British press

While the highly articulate Goehr and Maxwell Davies were being hailed in the musical press of the early 1960s as leaders of a new British avant-garde, Birtwistle put out a sequence of enigmatic exploratory pieces and said almost nothing at all. But with the rapturously received 1965 premiere and subsequent recording of his 18-minute ensemble piece Tragoedia, it was suddenly evident that here was a musical sensibility and sound quite new in English music.

What was so striking was that the piece seemed at once so ancient yet so modern, so rigidly formalistic yet so wildly physical, with its interspersing of raucous processionals and dances with trance-like moments of delicacy and calm. No wonder that perceptive critic, the late David Drew, characterised it as ‘an earthy drama: protestant, rude, and generally at odds with traditional orders of thought and behaviour. Blood is shed; yet there remains a still centre of lyricism.’

Retrospectively, indeed, it is possible to hear that Tragoedia already embraced most of the concepts, techniques and rules of procedure that have continued to characterise Birtwistle’s output over the years. What has nevertheless enabled him to accumulate a catalogue that now runs to around 130 works, many on the largest scale, is his seemingly endless ability to juxtapose those same concepts, techniques and rules of procedure in ever new ways. ‘The sacred thing is the context,’ Birtwistle has remarked. ‘As soon as I move, as soon as I make a gesture, and move to another, there’s a situation with ramifications. Things I would never have thought of in the first place appear. To these I have a duty…’

The music that came after Tragoedia

Following his breakthrough with Tragoedia, Birtwistle proceeded to exploit the work’s salient characteristics in a number of different ways. One way was to monumentalise its more formalistic procedures in a sequence of large-scale orchestral works that would punctuate his output. In The Triumph of Time (1972) he strings disparate blocks of material together in the guise of an immensely slow, baleful processional.

In Earth Dances (1986), various blocks are superimposed simultaneously, its form derived from their grinding and buckling together like tectonic plates.

In Exody (1997), conceived as an up-beat to the Millennium, the listening ear is led back and forth along various routes as through a complex labyrinth – the work ends with the same music from which it started to suggest there is only one way in and out.

Yet, according to Birtwistle himself, Tragoedia was actually conceived as a kind of musical drama abstracted from the ritual and formal aspects of ancient Greek tragedy, and its latent theatricality – the way in which the solo horn and cello are cast as ‘personages’ linking the more chorus-like block textures – would recur in a number of later ensemble scores, notably Secret Theatre (1984) and Theseus Game (2003), in which the effect is heightened by having certain players actually move around the concert platform.

And Tragoedia also proved to be a preliminary study for Birtwistle’s first opera proper, Punch and Judy (1967), which, as it were, mythologises the traditional English puppet play according ancient Greek principles.

Indeed, all of Birtwistle’s subsequent stage works involve a measure of such depersonalising formality, whether in his massive treatments of actual myths as in The Mask of Orpheus (1973-83) and The Minotaur (2008), or in his mythologising of medieval romance in Gawain (1989-91) or of the New Testament in The Last Supper (1998-9). Even his ostensibly lighter entertainment The Second Mrs Kong (1993-4) resembles a ‘virtual’ post-modern myth for a cybernetic age.

John Tomlinson as The Minotaur in Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and directed by Stephen Langridge at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images)
John Tomlinson as The Minotaur in Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth and directed by Stephen Langridge at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London. (Getty Images)

The meditative vein that runs through Birtwistle's music

Yet that ‘still centre of lyricism’ in Tragoedia has proved no less exemplary of a remote, meditative vein that has continued to resurface in his output. This is to be heard mainly in his vocal and instrumental works, ranging from such scores as Songs by Myself (1984), setting verses of his own, to such fine-spun cycles as his Orpheus Elegies for oboe, harp and countertenor, paraphrasing the Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke.

Birtwistle has sometimes described himself as prone to melancholy, by which he seems to signify not so much personal sadness, as a tendency to reflect on the limitations of human happiness and action in a world dominated by fate and chance. Certainly, few contemporary composers have sustained a more brooding stasis than that found in his Melencolia 1 (1976) for clarinet, harp and double string orchestra (a work that Birtwistle has also described as ‘My Tallis Fantasia’).

More recently, though, his fine pair of John Dowland-inspired orchestral scores The Shadow of Night (2001) and Night’s Black Bird (2004) have explored a more positive concept of melancholy as ‘a humour of the night, an inspired spiritual condition’.

All of this would seem to fit well enough with Birtwistle’s quiet-spoken, sometimes deliberately evasive and essentially private character, and with his abiding commitment to his family and a few close friends.

The harshness of Birtwistle's music

How, then to account for the fierce abrasiveness, the uncompromising dissonance of so much of his music? It apparently put Benjamin Britten to flight within 20 minutes of curtain-up on Punch and Judy at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival and scandalised the tabloid press when Birtwistle’s orgiastic Panic for saxophone and ensemble was let loose on the Last Night of the 1995 Proms.

Indeed, at an early age he seems to have decided that an originality of utterance could only be achieved through extremes. Yet, by whatever idiosyncratic means, he has created his own unique sonorous landscape, a whole musical world. No doubt it seems an unfriendly world to those who seek in music an enlivening entertainment or a consolatory sweetness; sometimes its lowering clouds and fearsome blasts can daunt even the most intrepid explorers. But it has its own integrity and, not infrequently, for those with ears to hear, its own strange beauty.