Revolutionary composer Harrison Birtwistle dies at 87
His resolutely demanding work sometimes tested the patience of listeners, but the composer was unfazed.
“The issue of accessibility,” Mr. Birtwistle once said, “is not my problem.”
“I have an idea. I express it as clearly as possible. The criticism is someone else’s problem,” he added.
Martyn Brabbins, Music Director of English National Opera, said Mr Birtwistle “was a much-loved collaborator and mentor whose work has inspired generations of musicians”.
Short of conventional harmony and heavy with complex rhythms, Mr. Birtwistle’s music has often been described as having an abrasive quality. In 1995 his piece “Panic” had a highly publicized premiere on live television as part of the hugely popular “Last Night of the Proms” concert.
The BBC has been inundated with complaints. “Did someone strangle a cat?” asked a viewer.
It wasn’t just ordinary musical audiences who grimaced at his work. Benjamin Britten, among Britain’s greatest composers of the 20th century, is said to have left during the intermission of the 1968 premiere of Mr Birtwistle’s chamber opera ‘Punch and Judy’ at Britten’s own Aldeburgh Festival.
Mr Birtwistle said audiences often had trouble with dissonance because it was unfamiliar.
“It has to do with memory in music,” he told The Sunday Times of London in 2019. “For example, if you have a Picasso, it can sit on the wall and be part of your memory, even if you only see it subliminally. In music, time really is fleeting. Modern music isn’t heard long enough to become familiar. You’re not close to familiarizing yourself with it. .
Born in Accrington, North West England, on July 15, 1934, Mr Birtwistle studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where his contemporaries included composer Peter Maxwell Davies and pianist John Ogdon . In 1965, he sold his clarinets and devoted himself entirely to composition.
His works included ‘The Mask of Orpheus’, staged by English National Opera in 1986; “Exody,” which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra premiered under Daniel Barenboim in 1998; “Gawain”, which premiered in 1991 at the Royal Opera House; and “The Minotaur”, which debuted at the same location in 2008.
The Press Association, Britain’s news agency, said “Gawain” was “cutting edge and has no trace of an air”. But Rodney Milnes, editor of Opera magazine, said the opera “grips the imagination without remorse”.
Reviewing ‘The Minotaur’, critic Anna Picard wrote in The Independent: “Long on ugliness, short of redeeming beauty, rich with the gritty, pungent poetry of David Harsent’s libretto, Birtwistle’s score is as violent than his subject.
But in the Evening Standard, Fiona Maddocks described it as “music of full-bodied, searing beauty”.
The music came from a unique perspective.
“I dream in the abstract – can you imagine that?” Mr Birtwistle told the BBC in 2002. “Can you imagine some kind of cogs, wooden cogs that are supposed to fit but don’t. And then you try to put them in another way and they don’t, and it’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s kind of an abstraction.
In 1987, Mr. Birtwistle won the $150,000 Grawemeyer Prize for Musical Composition from the University of Louisville for his opera “The Mask of Orpheus.” He was knighted in the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1986, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988, and in 2001 was elevated to Companion of Honor, a British distinction limited to 65 living persons.
Mr. Birtwistle, the object of so much criticism, memorably doled it out to pop musicians in 2006 when he accepted an Ivor Novello Award, a British honor for songwriting and composition.
“Why is your music so (expletive) strong? ” he said. “You must all be brain dead. Maybe you are. I didn’t know there were so many shots until the last half hour. Have fun. Goodbye.”
His wife, Sheila, died in 2012. Survivors include their three sons.