MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

RIP Sir Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Birtwistle on Birtwistle

The fiercely independent and original English composer Harrison Birtwistle has died at the age of 87, his publisher Boosey & Hawkes reported today. He died at his home in Mere, UK.

Jonathan Cross wrote an assessment for Boosey: “He knew what he wanted, and he simply did what he did. Pan, embodied in Panic’s solo saxophone, was – like Orpheus, like the Green Knight, like the Minotaur – just another of those mythical creatures with which Birtwistle became obsessed, and through which he was able to articulate deep ideas about time and identity, longing and loss. This is the essence of the music of Harrison Birtwistle, and the source of its power. This will be its enduring legacy. And it is to this music we shall return time and again to continue to mine its immense riches.”

Observes David Beard: “Birtwistle’s music reflects an intensely personal vision of the world in which degrees of musical complexity may be related to our experience of the world by metaphors of journeying, ritual, or multiple perspectives of the same object. Although influenced to varying degrees by Stravinsky, Messiaen, Boulez and Cage, his distinctive characteristics include wind- and percussion-led antiphony, extended melodies free-flowing over a mechanical ground, and shifting pulses that question our ability to count clock time. Textures may become densely layered, but from such soundscapes individual voices speak with fanfare- or dance-like gestures. Birtwistle’s music, in other words, is always firmly grounded in the body. This should come as no surprise given his early experience of musical theatre ….”

A tweet from younger peer Thomas Adès observes: “Harrison Birtwistle once said of Messiaen ‘when he dies the whole house of cards will fall down’. I feel a bit like it has fallen today.”

UPDATE: And Monday 18 April 2022 continues to bring tragic news in the classical music world: also announced today were the deaths of two pianists, the legendary Romanian Radu Lupu and his younger American colleague Nicholas Angelich. This truly is the end of an era.

Filed under: Harrison Birtwistle, music news


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