Britain’s last great composer has died

Britain’s last great composer has died


norman lebrecht

April 18, 2022

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, a British composer of inimitable originality and global success, has died some months after suffering a stroke.

Harry was 87. We will not see his likes again.

Raised on a poor farm near Accrington, in the northwest of England, he once told me that everything he did came from walking on stony hills with the wails of a clarinet in his head and the structure of Greek drama.

He went to study in Manchester and formed a gang with Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. Max, he said had ambition. Sandy had a cultured background and knew people like Messaien and Schoenberg. Gary Howarth could conduct anything and the tragic Ogdon ‘was the genius among us’.

Britten and Pears walked out of Harry’s first opera, Punch and Judy, at Aldeburgh and Covent Garden reneged on his first commission. It was English National Opera that staged Mask of Orpheus in the mid-1980s, setting Harry on the path to operatic productivity. Covent Garden made amends with Gawain in 1990, and several further operas.

Never an ‘easy’ composer, he posed problems that good conductors loved to tackle. Christoph von Dohnanyi, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Franz Welser Möst were among those who found fulfilment in his extraordinary Earth Dances, as gripping an evocation of nature and ritual as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

Like Samuel Beckett, he mystified those who could not penetrate his works and delighted those who could.

Contrary to some slick media portraits of a solitary artist, he was highly sociable and tremendous fun with those he liked and trusted. He had a slow, dry way of telling jokes, all the more explosive for the long buildup.

I had great affection for him and grieve at his passing.

Read also: A breakthrough night with Harrison Birtwistle


  • J Barcelo says:

    A good long life and well-lived! I don’t know enough of his music and live performances in the US are pretty much non-existent. Earth Dances should be standard repertoire. I hope your assessment that he was the last of the greats isn’t correct. If there aren’t anymore great composers coming, then why bother teaching composition at the RCM or elsewhere?

  • Alan says:

    I still remember the thrill of hearing his music for the first time in the mid 1970’s. He encouraged a life long interest in new music.

  • Rob says:

    He certainly knew how to put bums on seats.

  • Althea T-H says:

    I disagree entirely with the headline.

    Many would regard Thomas Ades as a great composer.

    In any case, who knows what the future may hold? Especially as others come into increasing prominence?

  • zayin says:

    Earth Dances: music or sound effects?

    It sounds like any other modern day sci fi movie score.

    Sure, maybe it was original when it was composed, but the piece is now indistinguishable from anything else that copied it afterwards.

  • MacroV says:

    I heard Sir Simon and the CBSO perform Earth Dances in Vienna in 1999 (and Nicholas Maw’s “Odyssey” the following evening). Don’t remember the piece at all, but the overall show remains highly memorable all these years later.

  • John Borstlap says:


    I disagree that the delight of people caused by B’s work is due to their powers of penetration. It may as well be something quite different, like the enjoyment of hearing an aural representation of violence and destruction, B’s speciality. To hear this correctly, may be just the right way of penetration.

    As such, B’s works are powerful, and an apt representation of something profoundly awful of the 20th century: its diabolical aggression. The Earth Dances are a good example of this: blind primeval forces destroying everything that comes in their path. It’s extraordinary to give voice to such an anti-civilisational thing in a convincing way, so many of its imitations are cheap and lame.

    A slight correction: ‘Sandy’ did not ‘know Schoenberg’. He was the theoretical Schoenbergian of the group, because of his own personal inclinations, and being the son of Walter Goehr, who was an intimate friend of Schoenberg, as is said. He saw Schoenberg a couple of times when a child. He (Alexander) understood and knew Schoenberg’s mindset as his own, as he claimed himself. With Schoenberg he shared a typical 20C mental problem: a talent locked-up behind the bars of an intellect which did not have roots in that talent, or no roots which could sap the juices.

    • Golembiewski says:

      Mr. Borstlap, are you unwell? I ask because normal people realize that announcements of a musical figure’s death are moments for kind words and platitudes, and any aesthetic criticism can wait for some later time. Yet time after time, you think that posts like these are an appropriate venue for a jeremiad.

      Now that I recall that you typically react to any personal criticism of yourself with a comment from an alternate persona signed “Sally”, I think I just answered my own question.

      • Myself says:

        Mr. JB has never really learnt that there’s a time and place to shoot one’s mouth off, and then there’s a time and place to shut up!

    • 1714NicJom says:

      JB what nonsense… pretentious nonsense.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      This is an apt description of the modern phenomenon of aural representation of some of the worst elements of existence. But it’s no different to film and visual images themselves which have largely driven us further down the sewage system. I don’t speak specifically here about HB.

      But my own view is that much of this modern music is virtually the ambient accompaniment to the visual image, mostly sci-fi films. I call it ‘sound design’. I’ve long held the view that since the invention of cinema music for the concert hall has been irrevocably influenced by that medium. Ergo, much of what passes for modernity has simply become a wall of noise.

      Anyway, back to the passing of this composer. His was obviously a life well lived and he seemed to enjoy the fruits of his endeavours.

      • George Mc says:

        Actually it usually works in the opposite direction i.e. sci-fi/horror film makers use music already written cf. Kubrick’s using Bartok for “The Shining” with Ligeti for “2001”. A lot of the original Star Trek music suggests The Rite of Spring.

    • music lover says:

      Can´t you even stop your pretentious,irrelevant,ridiculous blather in the wake of death and mourning? Did no one teach you appropriate behaviour in such situations?Unbelievable.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Dying is no excuse for covering-up someone’s work. You should read better and think better.

        Yes, its difficult.

    • Jack says:

      Heard some of your music on YouTube. I’d have to say you are unfettered by the slavery of talent.

  • Ya what says:

    RIP. What a huge loss for the music world. For me, he was a far greater composer and musician than the likes of Boulez or Stockhausen. His music had a passionately human quality to it, and whilst I’m not a fan of everything he wrote (at times, it surmounted to cacophonies of wrong notes), a real, penetrative individual voice can be found amongst the ‘noise’ of a few works that will truly stand the test of time. At his best, his music can be invigorating, thrilling, moving, imaginative, and deeply emotional.

    Earth Dances is one of the greatest works of the 20C. The Triumph of Time also a standout work.

  • Tony Halstead says:

    Britain’s ‘last’ great composer? A.F.A.I.K. the great (and unaccountably neglected) ‘Sandy’ Goehr is still very much alive.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Goehr a ‘great composer’?

      Rather an intellectual in a schoenbergian mould, with comparable problems. I studied with the man, and it was clear he did not understand much of composing, which is the least one would expect from a ‘great composer’.

      • music lover says:

        Listening to your music on YouTube,it rather seems you don´t understand much about composing.Other than some tacky,clumsy shoplifting from Ravel and early Berg.No originality,no structure,no direction.Mr.Goehr is an intellectual and musical giant.It didn´t rub off

        • John Borstlap says:

          For a ‘music lover’ this comment reveals an abyss of ignorance and incapacity. But that is nice of democratic websites, in this way one can hear what such people, listening to classical music, are actually thinking. Before the internet, such rumbles udner the rock got unnoticed.


    Yes RIP Harry – a great musician and a generous soul. He stood in once for his friend Max quite late in life, who was too unwell to give a masterclass I arranged and Sir Harrison magically appeared in his place. Your comparison with Beckett is fair and true – my own household splits along these same lines!

  • Evan says:

    An obituary tribute on my blog, with the single question I asked Harrison Birtwistle:

  • Sam McElroy says:

    I am very saddened to hear of Harry’s passing. I was deeply honoured to spend a summer in his company when he asked me to sing the world premiere of his chamber opera, “Io Passion”, at the Aldeburgh and Bregenz festivals. I’ll never forget the audition. I walked into a rehearsal space at ENO and, as I sang to the seated board – Onegin’s first aria, I remember – a slightly hunched figure in a scruffy old duffle coat strolled around the back of the room and gazed out of the window, seemingly disinterested. The mysterious, hunched man then came to me with a piece of music I hadn’t seen before. I took a quick look and told him, “The vocal line has a completely different time signature to the accompaniment. How do I…?” “I know”, he said in a beautiful, earthbound, northern drawl, “I wrote it. Just start together and finish together. Doesn’t matter what happens in between. That’s the point.” I gave it my best shot. Harry turned to the board, “Ok, auditions are over. This is the one I’ve been looking for for 2 years. Give him the contract.” And off he went. I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or an insult, but I was happy enough, and went on to enjoy a wonderful experience with Harry, Stephen Langridge, Alan Hacker, the Quatuor Diotima and the team, both in the original run and the revival. And I’m still trying to figure out what the piece was about! “That’s the point!”

  • Marc says:

    Is it possible to post a complete photo of the man? It’s a nice shoulder, I grant you — but I’d love to see his face. Thanks.

  • Miv Tucker says:

    I remember watching Punch and Judy on C4 in the 80s, with The Fires of London and Mary Thomas.
    I found the music and singing were quite literally driving me mad — a not totally unpleasant sensation, oddly enough — so I can understand Britten and Peers’ slightly extreme reaction.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In the last century, adding to the madness of the world was very popular in the arts. It somehow offered reassurance that audience members were right in their observations.

  • D B says:

    Still remember the furore over Panic being played at the last night of the proms… Great man, sad loss.

  • music lover says:

    He was a giant,yes…….Britain´s last great composer?nahhh…..Ades is every bit as great,and altogether more multifaceted and ,to my ears ,even more fascinating….Colin Matthews,Helen Grime,Julian Anderson,Turnage,all great….And Sir Harry would be the first to admit this.

  • John Borstlap says:

    So many commentators on this thread have no ears, no culture, no knowledge of history or psychology, or any understanding of how music life works. Also they stumble into their own obstacles while reading texts.

    HB was certainly an important figure in 20C British music life and as such to be respected. But that does not in the slightest diminish the need to understand the real message of his work, which was clear right from the beginning, and distinguish it from the ridiculous hype by the deaf and the blind, which only distort the meaning of B’s work. Celebrating the opening of an abyss of destruction as a source of enjoyment is the world upside-down.

    Did HB actually understand himself what he wrote? Was he a real artist, or a mere poseur? Often artists merely answer to what is bubbling-up from their subconscious and give voice to what they see or hear in that shadowy realm. In that sense, HB certainly was an artist, as the power of his work demonstrate. But that should be understood for what it is, and not covered-up by superficial hollaballoo of modernist misunderstanding.

    • Stuart says:

      So many commentators on this thread have no ears, no culture, no knowledge of history or psychology, or any understanding of how music life works. Also they stumble into their own obstacles while reading texts.

      what is wrong with you?

      • music lover says:

        Simply everything .A mediocre talent craving a niche for himself.

      • John Borstlap says:

        People so happy with HB’s works obviously don’t understand what they are hearing. They reveal themselves in the most embarrassing way. This is not some personal opinion, but obvious to anybody with good ears, and with some ability to compare. Don’t forget music is not mere sound, but psychology in terms of sound. This is the basis of musical practice. People who hear only the sound of music, don’t hear what it ‘says’. Nothing strange with this….

        • Stuart says:

          It has been said that when you are deep in a hole that you should stop digging…no, you simply double down. It is hard to get people to accept your arguments when you are unfairly (blindly) insulting them. “People” – “obviously” – what unsupported arrogant nonsense.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Thinking, rooted in some professional reality, has pins – so, balloons be warned. They better don’t come close.

    • music lover says:

      Thanks God we have a tenth rate would be composer who defines culture for us.You are decades over your sell by date.Having become a riotously funny self caricature.

    • George Mc says:

      It’s just as well you’re here to tell us what’s what, John! (And to tell us again and again ….)

      • John Borstlap says:

        Don’t tell anybody – but Dr Hofstadter from the Texas Institute of Technology is carrying-out a long-term research project to statistically collect data about the real thoughts of music lovers, the outcome of which may help concert life to better adjust to the concerns of modernity. So, a secret arrangement has been agreed upon between Norman, Hofstadter and me to have an occasional professional idea explode in the field which would stimulate people to come out of the woodwork, being completely unaware they are part of a scientific experiment. And lo and behold, it works….

        • George Mc says:

          Oh neither I nor anyone else has any intention of telling anyone that.

          • music lover says:

            And then the ambulance comes,JB descends dramatically the grand staircase,ending his speech to the imaginary audience with the iconic line”Allright,Mr.Stokowski,i am ready for my curtain call”….in a hallucinatory vision of grandeur…..Dramatic music,end titles….

          • John Borstlap says:


        • music lover says:

          All is well….Don´t forget your meds…

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    Very sad news indeed; I’ve never really warmed to much of his work (Earth Dances being a notable exception) but I respected him enormously; he had a truly individual voice and will be much missed.

    The description of him as “Britain’s last great composer” has, however, already been rightly derided; I dare not imagine what he would himself have thought of it but, even leaving aside all the younger ones, if ever there was a more egregious insult to Alexander Goehr and Thea Musgrave I have fortunately yet to encounter it (and, by the way, the French composer whom you mention en passant in your reference to Goehr is spelt “Messiaen”)…

  • Joel Kemelhor says:

    Birtwistle’s orchestral music has sometimes been heard here in Washington DC, and I remember seeing him in attendance at the Kennedy Center.

    “Punch and Judy” (despite the British critics hailing it) was a 2-LP set I gave away after two hearings. Noisy, screechy and cruel to the singers.

    “Gawain” was an advance in both music and characters.

  • John Borstlap says:

    On a last, more serious note: people who think that HB’s works are NOT about death and destruction, but truly enjoy them as ‘great music’, are doing him a great injustice and disservice. He belonged to the people who let the world hear how the 20th century sounds, like Ligeti, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Boulez. So, ‘music lovers’ getting in a lather of indignation because their totem seems to be desecrated, are actually putting a knife in his back.

    • music lover says:

      It gets boring,John….we don´t get your rather modest music apprecation skills.

    • George Mc says:

      So … people who think Birtwistle’s music is “great music” are doing him a disservice because they don’t accept that his music is “really” about death and destruction – and is therefore not “great music”? And so Birtwistle not only wrote bad music but music that’s SUPPOSED to be bad! And the only way someone can appreciate Birtwistle is by appreciating how bad he is!

      I can’t help thinking you are trying desperately to cover all exits here!

      • John Borstlap says:

        No, you got it wrong – like so many other chaps here, running around their totem in confusion.

        HB was a sound artists, not a composer: he used pure sound structures but cleverly included some snippets from music as sign posts, pointing into the dark. This technique stems from Schoenberg, especially Pierrot Lunaire (1912). HB’s works are great stuff as sound art, and they convey the ‘sound of the 20C’. So, in the context of sound art these are powerful and successful works. The question is, whether it is a good idea to merely let hear how awful that century was. It was the century that was bad, not the sound art of HB that was inspired by it.

        Art can be good and awful in the same time for what they convey. Stravinsky’s Sacre is great music, but awful for what it conveys (human sacrifice) – something truly inhuman is shown in terms of sound. Enjoying it for pleasure is missing the point of that work entirely. Composers can do such extreme thing only once, by way of warning, or offering a single insight, but it is something extraordinary that is only effective one time, because of its extremism. Building a whole career on showing how awful an age is, is absurd. Being celebrated and loved for it, and listeners being thrilled with joy by it, are signals of psychopatic disorders. Such people either have no idea what they hear (which is forgivable), or are sadists, which is highly unpalatable.

        Context is everything in aesthetics.

        And then one has the fashionable modernism driven by so many people without any cultural awareness, who merely want to feel ‘modern’, and produce the mental mist around such works to wrap it in marketable paper to get the hall full. And then, the real ‘message’ of something like HB’s works is distorted, like nice fotos of real murder but with a bit of erasures.

        • George Mc says:

          “…he used pure sound structures but cleverly included some snippets from music as sign posts, pointing into the dark.”

          That suggests that Birtwistle’s music – like that of any other good composer – is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar. (The bad composers regurgitate the familiar. It is probably not possible to produce the purely unfamiliar.)

          “The question is, whether it is a good idea to merely let hear how awful that century was. It was the century that was bad, not the sound art of HB that was inspired by it… Building a whole career on showing how awful an age is…”

          We are getting into dubious subjective territory here. Did HB want to display “how awful the that century was”? Is that the notion that goes through the minds of his audience? It never went through MY mind. But you always write as if you and you alone can see what’s “really happening”.

          Also I don’t set out to hear something by, first of all, assuming that I am going to be taught some kind of edifying lesson. I find that idea repulsive. And it sets up unpleasant echoes – as if you are suggesting something akin to Stalin’s “socialist realism”. It seems to me that, ironically, you share in tendencies that helped to produce the totalitarian regimes of that awful century.

  • George Mc says:

    It’s sad to hear of HB’s passing. I recall Michael Hall’s book on the composer which drew on the famous distinction between the fox and the hedgehog where the fox knows many things, the hedgehog only one – but he knows it well. And MH reckoned that HB was a veritable hedgehog. From then on I couldn’t get the HB as hedgehog image out of my mind. He does LOOK like a hedgehog!

    MH also related a curious tale of how HB would never permit any music playback devices in his house and so when he wanted to hear Wagner’s Siegfried, his poor wife had to drive the car slowly with the opera on the tape deck and H in the back seat with the score.

    Certainly one of a kind!

  • Adam says:

    ‘Bach Measures’
    ‘Machaut à ma manière’
    should testify his ingenuity and deep musical intelligence for those who find his original works too intense or impenetrable.