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. The Last Supper received its first performances at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and at Glyndebourne in 2000. Pulse Shadows, a meditation for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble on poetry by Paul Celan, was released on disc by Teldec and won the 2002 Gramophone Award for best contemporary recording. Theseus Game, co-commissioned by RUHRtriennale, Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta, was premiered in 2003. 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.

Works premiered in the past decade include his music theatre work The Corridor which opened the Aldeburgh Festival and toured to the Southbank Centre and the Bregenz Festival, with further performances in New York and Amsterdam. Birtwistle’s violin concerto for Christian Tetzlaff was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011, followed by performances at the BBC Proms, Tokyo Composium and Salzburg Festival. Birtwistle’s 80th birthday year in 2014 saw the premiere of Responsesfor piano and orchestra, touring internationally with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist, and 2015 brought a new music theatre work The Cure performed in a double-bill with The Corridor at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Royal Opera House in London. Deep Time for orchestra, commissioned by the Berlin Staatsoper and BBC Radio 3, received first performances in 2017 conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin and at the BBC Proms.
The music of Birtwistle continues to attract international conductors including Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst, Paul Daniel and Martyn Brabbins. 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, MiTo in Turin and Milan and Casa da Música in Porto.
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 is currently a Visiting Professor 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, Metronome and Soundcircus labels. Harrison Birtwistle is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
December 2017
This biography can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with the following credit: Reprinted by kind permission of Boosey & Hawkes


" Deep time "

For orchestra

Boosey & Hawkes


Deep Time was conceived as a companion to The Triumph of Time (1972–2) and Earth Dances (1985–6) with which it shares an interest in time and geology. Uniquely, however, the musical processes in Deep Time are comparable to the notion of geologic time first proposed by the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–97). According to Hutton, geologic time involves a perpetual cycle of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation for which there is ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. This suggests an unimaginably slow process, a kind of sustained bedrock, which is present in Deep Time. But in geologic time there are also catastrophes, volcanic eruptions, resulting in a kind of chaos or frozen violence. Similarly, in Deep Time one kind of multi-layered order is superseded by another as various instrumental voices, heterophonic lines, hocketing textures and other objects follow, overlap, or are juxtaposed in a discontinuous yet related succession that is in a permanent state of exposition.
Deep Time is not a representation of Hutton’s ideas, however: it is about itself, about the perception of musical time and how long the piece lasts. In tonal music our sense of the work’s length is influenced by harmonic rhythm, which moves differently in a Haydn or Schubert symphony. But is there an equivalent in music that lacks tonality? Fundamental to Deep Time is a tension between clock time (Barenboim requested a piece lasting fifteen minutes) and the potential duration of musical ideas, of which there are enough in Deep Time to last over an hour. A piece of music occupies a fixed duration, as a painting sits in a frame, but a musical idea has its own speed, like the elephant in the procession depicted in Breugel’s The Triumph of Time. Similarly, geologic time is measured in years but has its own tempo.
Hutton was not the first to consider deep time – Leonardo da Vinci had noticed marine fossils on mountaintops and wondered how long it took for rivers to carve out valleys – but he was the first to intuit the Earth’s colossal age. The term ‘deep time’ came later, coined by James McPhee in his 1981 book Basin and Range. By then the Biblical idea of the Earth as 6,000 years old had been replaced by the current estimate of 4.5 billion years. If deep time is equivalent to the old English yard – the distance from the King’s nose to the end of his outstretched hand – then, McPhee observes, ‘one stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.’
There is violence in geologic time but also calmness after the event as experienced when viewing a landscape, for example on the island of Raasay off the west coast of Scotland. Here, where The Mask of Orpheus was composed (1973–83), some of the Earth’s oldest rock sits next to some of the youngest, the isolated fragment of a deeper process, a broad geological fault line. As in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, stillness in Deep Time does ‘not in the last resemble a peace’. Rather, it is ‘the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention’.
Harrison Birtwistle with David Beard @ 2016

" The Moth Requiem "

For 12 singers, 3 harps et solo flute, text by Roblin Blaser: "The Moth Poem" from "The Holy Forest"

Boosey & Hawkes


4/10/2012 : Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam. By the Netherlands Chamber Choir / Asko|Schönberg Ensemble, cond. Reinbert de Leeuw.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s keen interest as a teenager in biology and in particular moths, inspired The Moth Requiem. He was intrigued by the mysterious existence and understated beauty of these tiny night creatures and as a young man even considered pursuing a professional course of studies focusing on them. The Moth Requiem symbolizes a loss of childhood dreams and the disappearance of things in general.

Another source which inspired the composition is The Moth Poem written by American-Canadian poet Robin Blaser who also happened to be the librettist for Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper, which was premiered in Berlin in 2000. The poem itself was inspired by a curious event. Blaser heard frightening sounds emanating from a room in his house for several consecutive nights. There was a piano in the room and it was almost as if the instrument was playing itself. When he finally went to investigate and opened the piano lid, he discovered a moth that continuously touched the piano strings in its attempt to escape. Blaser died in 2009 and Birtwistle has paid a musical tribute to him by incorporating fragments of his poem A Literalist in the music. A line from the poem “ the moth in the piano” is barely audible and flashes by at breakneck speed.

The unusual orchestration of The Moth Requiem also links the music to the text: Alto flute and 3 harps refer to the moth and the piano. The main text, sung by two 6-voiced women’s choirs, is performed using the different Latin names for moths. Birtwistle chose Latin (as did Stravinsky in some of his late works) because of its abstract character, which is well suited to a centuries old ritual such as the Requiem Mass.

The beginning of The Moth Requiem suggests enigmatic pianissimo sounds representing the moth’s agitation in the piano strings. The capricious, nervous lines of the alto flute can be interpreted as the trapped tiny creatures feverish attempts to find freedom. There is no specific story or underlying programme implied for the rest of this one movement work. The music is dense and complex with charming, muted moments alternating with fierce outbursts and changes from pointilistic to razor sharp rhythms.

© Theo Muller
(Clear with Theo Muller first; First printed by the Nederlands Kamermoor, 14 Oct 2012)


" Concerto for Violin and Orchestra "

Boosey & Hawkes


W O R L D   P R E M I E R E
March 3rd 2011 - Symphony Hall, Boston, MA - Christian Tetzlaff, violon / Boston
Symphony Orchestra – dir. Marcelo Lehninger.

“ (…) Birtwistle wrote the concerto mostly over the course of 2010, completing it in the fall. Virtually uniquely among Birtwistle’s works to date, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra reveals no extramusical clues in its title. His several earlier concerted works received such titles as Melencolia I (inspired by a Dürer painting) for clarinet and  strings;  Endless  Parade  for  trumpet;  The  Cry of  Anubis   for  tuba,  and  Panic (referring to rites of Pan) for saxophone. The Violin Concerto’s prosaic title, by contrast, allows for the possibility of any interpretation: it is a blank canvas. The use of such a title suggests comparison with the great line of the “violin concerto,” much as the provocatively generic titles of Stravinsky, such as Symphonies  of Wind Instruments and Symphony in C, underline those works’ deviations from convention as much as their place within a tradition.

Although the concerto lacks a specific narrative armature, it is indebted to classical
Greek drama: the violin soloist as protagonist and the orchestra as chorus.

For Birtwistle each musical instrument has a constant personality regardless of context, beyond its technical and idiomatic capabilities, retaining that personality even  from  one  piece  to  the  next.  The  solo  violin  role  here  is  thus  a  consistent character, not precisely opposed to but different from the collective personality of the chorus. The solo plays almost without pause throughout, and although flashy difficulty and virtuosity are not the point, the piece is nonetheless a brilliant and exciting workout. The ensemble-chorus is a malleable body; only when its material is very clear can the whole chorus “speak” at once, while more complex material or layers of material are given to sub-groups within this accompaniment.

Musically, the ensemble establishes the ongoing, but irregular and sometimes conflicting, foundation of ostinatos, which the composer calls the “continuum,” beneath the foreground music of the soloist, called the “cantus.”

During the course of the piece, which is primarily fast and very difficult for the
violinist, there are five true duets, in which a “chorus” member emerges in conversation with the violin solo: first flute, followed by piccolo, cello, oboe, and bassoon. Birtwistle describes these duets as “a way of focusing the dialog,” and they also may suggest the cyclic effect of similar verses within the larger form.

The drama is in the intertwining of the primary voice with the orchestra’s individuated and joined opinions, and the clarifying of these relationships. Far from the  decisive  conclusion  of  the  traditional  concerto’s  final  cadence,  Birtwistle’s concerto courts ambiguity in the gradual lessening of the orchestra’s presence until, on the very last page, a completely new world of sound suggests both a new beginning and an unexpected finality. “
Robert Kirzinger
Program note © 2011 Robert Kirzinger for the Boston Symphony Orchestra


" The trees of strings "

String quartet dedicated to Elliot Carter

Editions Boosey & Hawkes

Harrison Birthwistle studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music with composers Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, pianist John Ogdon and conductor Elgar Howarth. In 1965, he sold his clarinet and devoted himself to composing, he left for Princeton after winning the "Harkness Fellowship" and finished his opera "Punch and Judy".

This work, with "Verses for Ensembles" and "The Triumph of Time", confirms Birthwistle as main figure in British music.

Between 1973 and 1984, the work of Birthwistle is dominated by his monumental lyric tragedy "The Mask of Orpheus", staged by the National Opera Francais in 1986 but also by a series of works now performed by many leading international ensembles, "Secret Theatre", "Silbury Air" and "Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum". Great scales of works are created the following decade: the opera "Gawain" and "The Second Mrs. Kog" concertos "Endless Parade" for trumpet and "Antiphonie" for piano, and "Earth Dances" for orchestra.

His more recent works include "Exody", "Panic", "Shadow of Night", "The Last Upper" is created at Glyndebourne in 2000. "Pulse Shadows", a meditation for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble won the Gramophone Award in 2002 for best recording of contemporary music. "Theseus Gam" (2003) for large ensemble and two conducters, the opera "The lo Passion for Aldeburgh Almeida", "Night's Black Bird" for orchestra, ...

In April 2008, his opera "The minotor" is created at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (DVD available from Opus Arte)

"The corridor" and "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" (Music Theatre) and then open the Aldeburgh Festival occurs in London (The Souhthbank Centre) and at the Bregenz Festival.

The music of Harrison Birthwistle is led by many conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Elgar Howarth, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös and Franz Welser-Möst.

It is controlled and performed in many festivals: the BBC Proms, Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Holland Festival, Luzern Festival, Stockholm New Music, Wien Modern, Witten Tage, the South Bank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Vienna and Settembre Musica in Turin and Milan.

He also received numerous awards and honors: Grawemeyer Award (1968), the Siemens Prize (1995) and is a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters in 1986 and Knight of the British Empire in 1988 and "Companion of Honour of the British and Commonwealth Order" in 2001.

He taught music by Henry Purcell at King's College London from 1995 to 2001 and is currently head of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Records of Harrison Birtwistle's works are available from Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, NMC, CPO and Soundcircus.

(Source: Editions Boosey & Hawkes, trans. NM)

In the late 70's, Harrison Birtwistle lived on the island of Raasay off the west coast of Scotland. He found the peace and solitude he needed to compose, but was disappointed to discover that there is no survival of the indigenous musical on the island. Centuries of Scottish Presbyterian strict prohibition actually erased all traces of that culture.

Despite this, he says, soul music seems to persist on the island. Near his home in Raasey, there is an old "piper'house" (bell-ringer's house), in which, once the musicians came from afar to learn the "pibroch" (traditional Scottish bagpipe music).

During this period, Birtwistle has never tried to describe his music in the landscape nor the mysteries of the island of the Hebrides. But in his new work, "The Tree of Strings" (tree string), which is a 2nd major quartet after "Nine Movements for String Quartet" is the staged poetry "Pulse Shadows" (1996 Cycle) by Paul Celan.

Birtwistle has tried to evoke what might have been musically survived in a hostile environment in which interpretations were banned, and should have been from generation to generation through oral tradition.

The title of the work comes from a poem by Sorley MacLean (1911-1996) on music, entitled "Craobh nan Teud". The Gaelic poet, born in Raasay, regularly used in his work, the landscape of the island as a persistant metaphor.

Andrew Clements

(Trad. NM)