Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of the most celebrated British composers of the 20th Century, has passed away at the age of 87.
Widely known for his 1971 work, ‘The Triumph of Time’, Birtwistle had a prolific career spanning five decades. His operas, often on mythological subjects, also helped make Birtwistle one of Britain’s best-known contemporary composers.
With inspirations ranging from poetry to folklore, Birtwistle found further notoriety in 1995, with his saxophone concerto, Panic, debuting at the Proms. It was estimated this performance attracted a worldwide television audience north of 100 million.
But it was not without controversy. In 2007, the Guardian retrospectively described it as, “A pulverising piece of uncompromising energy – the first piece of contemporary music ever to have appeared on a Last Night programme.”
As it was, some viewers were unimpressed, and took to BBC’s audience line to complain, upset to have found “violent contemporaneity”, instead of “an evening of comforting, patriotic fervour.”
“The Harrison Birtwistle piece was a disgrace and an insult to the British public,” ranted one viewer. Both the Daily Mail and Daily Express echoed this, calling it “a horrible cacophony” and “unmitigated rubbish”.
In commemorating his death, the Royal Philharmonic remembered the five of their awards that Birtwistle won, adding, “His music shook the earth. There was force and potency in every note he wrote. We will listen in awe to his works for decades to come.”
Birtwistle was born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1934. He studied composition and the clarinet at the Royal Manchester College of Music, before selling his clarinets in 1960, and enrolling at Princeton University in New Jersey, focusing on composition.
This was where he wrote the opera Punch And Judy, which, along with Verses For Ensembles and The Triumph Of Time, established Sir Harrison as a leading light in British music.
By 1975, Birtwistle was musical director of the Royal National Theatre in London. He held the post until 1983, and in 1988 he was knighted. Birtwistle’s wife, Sheila Duff, died in 2012, and he is survived by three sons and six grandchildren.