Sir Harrison Birtwistle, avant-garde composer who became the great old man of British classical music – obituary

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, CH, who died aged 87, was one of the most uncompromising British composers of modern times and one of the hardest to classify; his abrasive, avant-garde music, often sounding like a dense jumble of notes and ideas, has baffled most while delighting a few.

Derogatory remarks such as “That looks like a Birtwistle load” or “Birtwistle, I walked in some of that” were for a time commonplace, but public resistance was ultimately futile. As his questioning voice became more easily recognised, if not understood, and the composer himself evolved into the tall, grumpy old man of English music, such heresies were quashed. In 2017, even The Daily Telegraph declared him “our greatest living composer”.

Two events brought Birtwistle to mainstream attention: the boos of her opera Gawain when it was revived at Covent Garden in 1994; and the following year Panic, an abrasive work for alto saxophone which opened the second half of Last Night of the Proms on BBC One, just before Land of Hope and Glory.

The Campaign Against Gawain, originally written in 1991 and based on the medieval tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was led by an anti-modernist group known as the Hecklers who described their music as “sewage sonic”. As the curtain fell on opening night, they launched into a tirade of cat-screams, as the composer’s supporters in the stalls clapped louder and louder, trying to orchestrate a standing ovation.

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