Happy birthday, Harry… 85 today!

Happy birthday, Harry… 85 today!


norman lebrecht

July 15, 2019

The most original and successful English composer since the death of Benjamin Britten, Harrison Birtwistle is an acquired taste as a musical proposition but a completely irresistible and unassuming man.

He is the first to admit that his music can be tough, but it’s a toughness that comes from the natural world and the farm where he grew up.

He is witty, warm and altogether wonderful at dinner – of you can hear his furry voice above the din.

I cherish the times we spent together.

He’s 85 today.

Many happy returns, Harry.


Here’s something I wrote for an earlier anniversary:

…The problem with Birtwistle is that he is a one-off, an original. From the night in 1967 when Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears walked out of Punch and Judy, his first opera, muttering about “intolerable violence”, it should have been clear that he was never going to fit into any canon or convenient category, English or other.

Birtwistle’s music sounds, on first hearing, extra-planetary, unfathomable. At second attempt, unaided, it gets no less weird. Yet I know no music of recent times that yields so easily to a key in the lock and, swinging open, delivers a sensation that is unearthly in the best sense of the word — that is to say, beyond earthbound imagination….

He cherishes the French pronunciation of his name — “Hérisson” — a hedgehog, a low and furtive creature that throws out spikes at a hint of danger. Birtwistle’s music is a bit like that, defending itself from casual acquaintance, forcing the listener to make a decision and pay attention. “None of that Classic FM rubbish,” he scoffs….

Read on here.

Earth Dances has been performed – and repeated – by the Berlin Philharminic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and many other international ensembles.


  • Esther Cavett says:

    The massive opera Mask of Orpheus is being resurrected in Autumn by ENO, London

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==I heard the leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra talk of smashing his violin after barely managing to negotiate the world premiere of Earth Dances

    Oh yes, that was concertmaster Rodney Friend (who actually goes way back with Harry to the John Ogdon, Goehr, PMD days in Manchester). I remember the E.D. premiere at Royal Festival Hall in late 80s :Peter Eotvos concentrating like crazy and Rodney looking very distracted

  • Chris says:

    The man is a legend among modern composers, even if you don’t much like what he has written.

  • Esther Cavett says:

    And he’s still composing. Has a premiere ‘When Falling Asleep’ for soprano, reciter and ensemble in September

  • John Borstlap says:

    Does HB really deserve such enthusiastic accolades? The video above says it all: wallowing in evil and destruction and death, cleverly made, with an aesthetic exploiting gestures from music but using them against their origines.

    I remember the gala, now quite some years ago, attended by the queen, with a HB premiere celebrating death and the end of the world. Everybody was very happy about this public acknowledgement of progress and modernity, symbolizing the current state of affairs.

    HB made a nice career out of modernism, violence, nihilism, ugliness and evil, like an angry farmer disappointed with the harvest, who has too often read the last chapter of the bible and – to hasten the arrival of its apocalyptic visions – throws around his manure. A civilization who heaps its credits and money on such art, looks longingly for suicide.

    Where does this ‘music’ comes from? Expressionistic Schoenberg and Berg, some sounds from the Sacre, some from Boulez’ angry pre-cool period, some postwar Germans. How is this not a time capsule from the fifties and sixties?

    It is not difficult to predict that HB’s works will disappear into oblivion, together with modernist ideologies, at the return of common sense of programmers and performers.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You may not like his music John, but he has a completely distinctive sound that cannot be mistaken for any other composer’s. There are not many like that these days.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That is true Norman, but does that mean it is good music? After all, also criminals can be quite original, but originality is in itself not an artistic category. (Think of Heliogabalus, Hitler, Werner von Braun, Einstein, Florence Foster Jenkins, Boris Johnson – all ‘originals’ but no artistic talent whatsoever.) The 20C cult of originality has blinded (and deafened) people to the fact that in the arts, originality is a side effect of artistic quality but never the contents. (How original were Palestrina, Bach, Mozart and Brahms?) A great artist is automatically and unintentionally also an ‘original’, but no originality can, in itself, indicate any artistic value. HB may be original and suffering from clever nightmarish imaginations, but it seems clear to me that he is a very unsophisticated man without a true musical talent.

        • Peter Owen says:

          I’m pretty sure Birtwistle couldn’t give a monkey’s about your opinion and I’d guess his admirers including Boulez, Barenboim, von Dohnanyi and Brendel wouldn’t either. To me his music was initially influenced by Stravinsky’s Symphony of Wind Instruments – compare its opening with that of Tragoedia (and Bernstein’s – Prelude, Fugue and Riffs whilst we’re on the subject) and much of Varese. If this sound world doesn’t appeal then tough. It does to me and thousands of others.

          • John Borstlap says:

            This is not about people but about music, it is not about ‘appealing’ or ‘not appealing’, it is not about taste either, but about understanding. People enjoying that stuff suffer from neurosis and lack of cultural awareness: one has to be quite unsophisticated to ‘enjoy’ Birtwistle, one has to be on the same primitive, numbed wave length, as a person. That there are many of them, will not come as a surprise.

          • Stuart says:

            Very much enjoying these points of view. They tie right into some political commentary that I heard last night: “People have such conviction and certainty, that their views are right and wise and obviously correct, that they therefore believe that anyone who holds opposing views cannot possibly be doing so for any sincere reason.”

          • John Borstlap says:

            Yes, and for that reason we should give flat-earthers (a growing community) all the respect that alternative facts deserve and not insist they are wrong.


          • Anon says:

            Sorry, but as a orchestral musician, his music is utterly depressing to play despite plaudits from Barenboim, Rattle at al. Dreadful stuff. Academic masturbation indeed. But hell, what do we know?

          • John Borstlap says:

            The point is, that works like HB’s represent a different art form than is practiced in the central performance culture of classical music. The players are asked to forget everything that made-up the heart of their profession, including education, musical perception, qualities of expression etc. etc. and focus on sound entirely. But music is not mere sound.

            Such works are much better suited to specialized ensembles or orchestras where the players restrict themselves anyway to pure sound and don’t bother about music.

            The reason that Rattle and Barenboim applaud such sonic art, is that they still think there is something like historical progress in music and they want to be seen as ‘at the cutting edge’ of ‘developments’. Thereby they merely show that they lock themselves into a time capsule which turns outdated and reactionary as soon as it appears that the only form of artistic progress is improvement, which is tested in reality and not on the level of ideology.

        • Rustier spoon says:

          When I recall the hours (and hours and hours) we used to spend first rehearsing, then probably recording, HB’s latest ditties in the BBCSO, prior to doing it all over again in a show, I have to say it was all so unmemorable that I’d not now recognise anything written by him that I have played. As for the film accompanying the Earth Dances…what is it about grotesqueness?!

          • John Borstlap says:


            The fact is that in such modernist aesthetics, relationships between notes are absent; their placing is merely a matter of colour and as such, isolated acoustical ‘events’ without any musical, logical meaning. That is why there is no movement in HB, only gestures. Once, on a chamber music festival I organised, Joanna MacGregor played HB’s ‘Harrison Clocks’ which is an intricate structuralist confection; a collegue composer happened to be the page turner and he noticed she played only half of the notes ‘right’ but it did not matter in the least for the effect, because in such music there is no right or wrong.

            Musical memory is based upon the inner relationships between the notes, if there are any. Such memory creates the experience of an integrated whole where the structure is articulated. In sonic art there is no articulated structure, anything can follow anything, because everything is something in itself.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “Does HB really deserve such enthusiastic accolades?”

      Come on, it’s his birthday. Be nice.

      “How is this not a time capsule from the fifties and sixties?”

      I would extend it up to pre WWI, but basically, I agree.

    • Steve says:

      Well, we won’t be around to find out. But at least he’ll have had his moment in the sun. Some people don’t even get that, do they, John?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Nothing is as embarrassing as being feted by the wrong kind of people, there is nothing enjoyable about HB’s success and I hope that, at least, HE will derive some pleasure from it, since that quality is particularly lacking in his works.

        And then – since a lack of arguments apparently made you feel pressed to become personal – I’m quite happy with premieres in the UK, NL, France, the US, Hong Kong, under conductors like Van Zweden. More sun is not necessary and what’s more, a constant and increasing glow is better than one bright flash.

        By the way, why shouldn’t you spend some time on serious reading? It is really quite informative and character building.

        • Steve says:

          I am very pleased for you, John, for your successes. It’s a pity you can’t be happy for those of others.

          You accuse me of becoming personal but, let’s be honest, it’s been personal for you for decades hasn’t it? Your perpetual embittered whining here and elsewhere may be thinly disguised as an attempt to educate an ill-informed public but, transparently, is nothing more than bile that you feel that others, who have followed different paths, have, generally, been more feted by an “establishment” which is clearly rigged to cheat you. From time to time you advise people on here to seek professional help with their nuroses. Perhaps you should consider this option yourself.

          The truth is that neither you nor I nor even the magnificent Roger Scruton can have more than opinions on what music will have an enduring appeal or for how long.

          You took the opportunity to make a fairly unpleasant attack on Birtwistle on the occasion of his 85th birthday. So don’t lecture people on getting personal.

          Anyway, I’m glad to get that off my chest. You’ll be pleased to know that I probably won’t bother to respond to any of your future posts, of which I’m sure there’ll be many.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Very funny… I hope you will have a good night sleep over it.

            For other, more serious readers: my comments were not about a simple envy about another composer’s success, since HB is not a real composer, and his ‘success’ not a real success, but about what he represented. Any person with a minimum of intelligence would have noticed that. Since WW II there has developed a modernist establishment which has, with great efforts, tried to force its destructive ideologies on a fragile performance culture. This is not about taste or being ‘conservative’, or worse: about ‘being envious’, but about correct observation – witnessed by very many people in the profession. There is absolutely nothing against the works of HB, not even against the works of people like Boulez, Xenakis or John Cage – we live in a free society which is pluralist and where anybody is free to seek the interest of audiences. But the claims that such works are nothing but a progressive development of art music, are insane and undermine the viability of the musical tradition, and hinder it from further true development. Similar conflicts between developing traditions and modernist ideologies we see in architecture (the cancer of modernist buildings destroying cityscapes), and in the visual arts, where nonsense (Warhol, Koons, Hirst etc.) is being written-up by a hoard of ‘theorists’ who have a vested interest in infinite explanation because there is nothing artistic to be seen. So, this is not about personalities, not even about careers, but about a serious break in the Western cultural tradition, which has caused classical music to turn into a museum culture, and the big collections like the Louvre and the Ufizzi turn into islands of rememberance of what art formerly was and what the human mind was capable of.

            Therefore, it is useful to observe the false claims in culture and point towards the idiocy that works like HB’s are considered musical works worth of the same respect and evaluation as the works of the musical tradition. They deserve their place totally elsewhere: as a different art, with different parameters and different aims. THERE HB comes entirely into his own right, and can his wallowing in aggressive nihilism be enjoyed without any memory of a musical art. With all due respect, but performing his works in the context of a musical culture, is like splashing a flood of sewage through a sophisticated salon, which had been carefully kept order because it represented something aspirational of the human mind.

            You see how immensily embarrassing your little blurb is, and how childish….

            ‘When you run out of arguments, try to draw the attention towards the person of your opponent, so that the audience will forget that you stand with empty hands’. (From the ‘Handbook of Senatorial Debate’, by Sophinius Pavanus, ca. 55 BCE.)

  • Rob says:

    His pieces if they’re not pretentious are as dull as a stale kitchen rag. He does not have a distinctive sound.

    I’m convinced he lived in fear of Maxwell Davies’s innate genius and natural musicianship.

  • Max Raimi says:

    “The most original and successful English composer since the death of Benjamin Britten…” I guess I’m not smart enough to understand his music; it does nothing for me. From my worm’s-eye view in the viola section, my sense is that that a lot of his writing seems not to be very skillful; a lot of effects do not come off in performance that would work far better if they were intelligently rewritten. As I say, maybe I just don’t get it. But I would regard Tippet, Ades, and Benjamin as far better composers; I don’t know how to evaluate how “successful” and “original” they are.

    • Hilary says:

      Tippett, a possible yes if we’re talking league tables.

      Adès and Benjamin resolutely no. I’d be hard pressed to identify what the (George) Benjamin signature/ voice is. Stimmied by early success and. A good pair of ears though.

      Desert island pieces by Birtwistle would include CAMP, Silbury Air (pre revision) and the Mask of Orpheus of which I eagerly anticipate the revival this year.

  • David Atherton says:

    “Dull”????? “Does not have a distinctive sound”????? “Lived in fear of Max……????? Just about the most ridiculous descriptions that anyone could ascribe to Harry or his music.

    Many congratulations to a longtime friend and wonderful musician. Norman, having been involved in the “Punch and Judy” premiere that you mention and many other first performances over the years, I can attest to everything you have written, particularly your piece on his 80th birthday. Harry is a genius, one of a kind. He’s always been a true friend and colleague, appreciative of those you faithfully try to execute his detailed instructions whilst being completely dismissive of those (fewer and fewer) who treat him (or his music) with contempt.

    Thank you for recognizing this amazing composer and human being.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      I never had any doubt, David. I went to see the first Mask of Orpheus run three times.

      • Giacomo says:

        Orpheus was as pretentious as it comes! Both the music and the awful production. The attrition rate at the intermission said it all. Emperor’s new clothes am afraid! Marmite = you either love his music or loathe it, so any debating if it’s “good” or not is pointless.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Mr Atherton was the founder of the London Sinfonietta and was a fierce advocate of postwar nonsense parading as the progressive continuation of the musical tradition. Whatever his qualities were in the field of music, his sailing on the postwar modernist Zeitgeist that promoted sonic art is not something to be very proud of, and his appreciation of HB’s works does not reveal a great understanding of music as an art form. He better read something like Sir Roger Scruton’s ‘Aesthetics of Music’ (OUP).

      • Stuart says:

        Thanks John – I wouldn’t have known who David Atherton was except for your timely reply. I have many of David’s recordings – some of HB’s. None of yours, I am afraid. I must explore further.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    As much of an advocate as I am of contemporary concert music, I’ve never understood Birtwistle. I lump him together with the likes of Havergal Brian. Old, secluded men scribbling random notes on a score, most of which will be forgotten once they’ve left the planet. At least Brian had his joke piece “The Gothic Symphony” to be tottered out once in a blue moon as an example of an excess of bad taste. Are they originals? For sure. Is it music? Most certainly not.