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In memory of Sir Harrison Birtwistle, acclaimed composer

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of the most celebrated British composers of the 20th Century and Emeritus Professor at King’s College London, died at the age of 87.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (composer) in the middle
Sir Harrison Birtwistle (middle) 15 July 1934 - 18 April 2022

Photo: Simon Jay Price

A leading voice in British music and an international figure in modern music with a prolific career spanning five decades, his compositions ranged from large-scale grand opera to intimate solo pieces. They include his best-known work, The Triumph of Time written in 1972, as well as operas The Mask Of Orpheus, Gawain and The Minotaur.

Among the many tributes being paid to Sir Harrison is one from Dr Paul Archbold, Research Fellow at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS). He remembers welcoming Birtwistle to two events at SAS.

The first at the Institute of Musical Research where he discussed the opera The Minotaur with his librettist David Harsent before the revival at the Royal Opera House. The second at the Institute of Modern Languages Research where he talked about his orchestral music with Julian Anderson the day before a BBC Symphony Orchestra performance of Earth Dances.

  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle in conversation with Julian Anderson (YouTube video)

“He was a great composer, one of the most important British composers of all time, and has left a most impressive body of work,” said Dr Archbold.

A dramatic flair is evident in all his music, and his contribution to contemporary music theatre and opera was second to none in his generation. His collaborations with Peter Hall, as Director of Music at the National Theatre in the 1970s, changed approaches to both contemporary drama and Ancient Greek classics - especially the acclaimed production of the Orestia.

The Lancashire-born composer, “a true musical colossus” according to the Royal Philharmonic Society, taught at both King’s College, London, and the Royal Academy of Music. He received a knighthood in 1988 and was made a Companion of Honour in 2001. His other international accolades include the Grawemeyer Award (1987), Ernst von Siemens Prize (1995) and Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1986).