Sir Harrison Birtwistle was born in Accrington in the north of England
in 1934 and studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College
of Music, making contact with a highly talented group of contemporaries
including Peter Maxwell
Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth. In 1965 he
sold his clarinets to devote all his efforts to composition, and travelled
to Princeton as a Harkness Fellow where he completed the opera Punch
and Judy. This work, together with Verses for Ensembles and
The Triumph of Time, firmly established Birtwistle as a leading
voice in British music.
The decade from 1973 to 1984 was dominated by his monumental lyric tragedy The Mask of Orpheus, staged by English National Opera in 1986, and by the series of remarkable ensemble scores now performed by the world's leading new music groups: Secret Theatre, Silbury Air and Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Large-scale works in the following decade included the operas Gawain and The Second Mrs Kong, the concertos Endless Parade for trumpet and Antiphonies for piano, and the orchestral score Earth Dances.
Birtwistle's orchestral works since 1995 include Exody, premiered
by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, Panic
which received a high profile premiere at the Last Night of the 1995
BBC Proms with an estimated worldwide audience of 100 million, and The
Shadow of Night commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra
and Christoph von Dohnányi.
The Last Supper received its first performances at the Deutsche
Staatsoper in Berlin and at Glyndebourne in 2000. Pulse Shadows,
a meditation for soprano, string quartet and chamber ensemble on poetry
by Paul Celan, was released on disc by Teldec and won the 2002 Gramophone
Award for best contemporary recording. Theseus Game, co-commissioned
by RUHRtriennale, Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta, was premiered
in 2003. The following year brought first performances of The Io
Passion for Aldeburgh Almeida Opera and Night's Black Bird
commissioned by Roche for the Lucerne Festival. His opera The Minotaur
received its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2008 and
has been released on DVD by Opus Arte.
The music of Birtwistle continues to attract international conductors including Daniel Barenboim, Christoph von Dohnányi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eötvös, Franz Welser-Möst, Paul Daniel and Martyn Brabbins. He has received commissions from leading performing organisations and his music has been featured in major festivals and concert series including the BBC Proms, Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Holland Festival, Lucerne Festival, Stockholm New Music, Wien Modern, Wittener Tage, the South Bank Centre in London, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, MiTo in Turin and Milan and Casa da Música in Porto.
Birtwistle has received many honours, including the Grawemeyer Award in 1968 and the Siemens Prize in 1995; he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, awarded a British knighthood in 1988 and made a Companion of Honour in 2001. He was Henry Purcell Professor of Music at King's College, University of London (1995-2001) and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Recordings of Birtwistle's music are available on the Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, NMC, CPO, Metronome and Soundcircus labels.
Harrison Birtwistle is published by Boosey & Hawkes.
December 2017. Reprinted by kind
permission of Boosey & Hawkes [Text only - photos from other sources]
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 8, 1996. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998 and 1999. This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.