In tribute – Sir Harrison Birtwistle: 1934 – 2022

We were deeply saddened to hear the news that alumnus and RNCM Fellow, Sir Harrison Birtwistle has died at the age of 87.

Born in Accrington in 1934, Birtwistle enrolled at the Northern School of Music in 1949 to study clarinet and piano, before joining the Royal Manchester College of Music in 1952 to study clarinet and composition.

It was during his RMCM years that he made contact with contemporaries Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. Together, this illustrious group of composers were known as ‘the Manchester School’, recognised worldwide as leaders of contemporary music.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle sitting in 2018

Credit: Philip Gatward

After selling his clarinets in 1965 to focus on composition full-time, Birtwistle completed his first chamber opera, Punch and Judy, as a Harkness Fellow at Princeton. And it was works such as this, alongside 1972’s The Triumph of Time, that cemented his international reputation.

In 1986, three years after he stood down from his role as Music Director of the newly established Royal National Theatre, English National Opera premiered The Mask of Orpheus. This epic four hour-long work took around 10 years to complete and received the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition from the University of Louisville. Other notable works in this genre include Gawain (1990), The Last Supper (2000), and The Minotaur (2008), with RNCM President Sir John Tomlinson in the lead role.

Professor Linda Merrick, Principal, said: ‘Sir Harrison will be fondly remembered as one of our most prestigious and inspirational alumni. His contribution to contemporary music is exemplary and I know that his legacy will live on, both through his music and the many composers who have followed in his footsteps.’

Professor Adam Gorb, Head of Composition, added: ‘Harrison Birtwistle was a truly towering figure in British contemporary music for over 50 years. A composer with a totally unique personal voice, his works will continue to challenge and enrich listeners’ experience far into the future. His visits to the RNCM provided memorable experiences for generations of composition students. He will be much missed.’

Birtwistle received many honours during his lifetime and was still composing into his 70s and 80s. His compositions have been performed at major festivals and concert series worldwide, and gained the attention of eminent conductors including Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst, Martyn Brabbins, Vladimir Jurowski and Edward Gardner.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle was knighted in 1988 and was made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He received Fellowship of the RNCM in 1989.

19 April 2022