Harrison Birtwistle

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 works of recent decades 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 Dohnanyi. 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. A new opera, The Minotaur, receives its premiere at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in April 2008.

The music of Birtwistle has attracted international conductors including Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Elgar Howarth, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Oliver Knussen, Sir Simon Rattle, Peter Eotvos and Franz Welser-Moest. 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 and the Konzerthaus in Vienna.

Birtwistle has received many honours including the 1986 Grawemeyer Award, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in 1986, a British knighthood in 1988, the Siemens Prize in 1995, and a British Companion of Honour in 2001. He was Henry Purcell Professor of Music at King's College of Music in London (1995-2001) and is currently Director of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Recordings of Birtwistle's music are available on the Decca, Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, Teldec, Black Box, Etcetera, NMC, CPO and Soundcircus labels.

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1967 Tragoedia 4.0 stars CD
Tragoedia Comments:
Melos Ensemble cond. John Carewe
1996 Pulse Shadows 4.0 stars CD
Pulse Shadows Comments:
A kind of post-serial soundplay,
Inspired by poetry of Paul Celan

Arditti Quartet,
Nash Ensemble with Claron McFadden
Conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw

2008 The Minotaur 3.0 stars DVD
Pulse Shadows Comments:

The Royal Opera Choir
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden cond. Antonio Pappano


The Minotaur was the mythical beast, half-man, half-bull, imprisoned in the Labyrinth on the island of Crete. He was the offspring of Pasiphae, wife to King Minos: the result of her unnatural lust for the bull from the sea sent by the god Poseidon at the request of Minos.

Athens is required each year to send young men and women for sacrifice to the Minotaur. This is an act of revenge for the death of Minos's son at the hands of the Athenians. Theseus, putative son of Aegeus, king of Athens (though perhaps the son of Poseidon) offers to go to Crete on the occasion of one such sacrifice. His intention is to slay the Minotaur and thus cancel the debt.

At the start of the opera Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, greets the Innocents as they arrive from Athens. Among them is Theseus. She is attracted to him, but they are suspicious of each other's motives. Ariadne is desperate to escape the prison of the island the prison of her legacy and sees in Theseus the possibility of escape.

In his dreams, the Minotaur - otherwise - inarticulate expresses the human side of his dual personality. In two symmetrical scenes, one in each half of the opera, he has visions of Ariadne, of his double, and of a shadowy figure (it is Theseus) who poses a threat to him, though he cannot understand what this is.

In a bloodthirsty but ritualised scene at the centre of the work, the sacrificial victims are caught and gored by the Minotaur. Keres, female death-spirits in the form of harpies, tear the hearts from the neardead and feed on the bloody carcasses.

Ariadne attempts to persuade Theseus to take her with him back to Athens, but he refuses. She consults the Oracle in the hope of finding a way to ensure that, if Theseus is successful in his fight with the Minotaur, he will be able to find his way back out of the Labyrinth. She believes that, by acquiring this knowledge, she will achieve the kind of bargaining power to force him to do what she wants. The Oracle, speaking through the medium of a priest, or Hiereus, tells Ariadne to give Theseus a ball of twine that he can unwind as he goes through the Labyrinth and then follow back to safety. In answer to her insistent question, the Oracle also confirms to Ariadne that she and Theseus will set sail for Athens together, though this prophecy, while accurate, hints at Ariadne's downfall.

The final section of the opera concerns the fight between Theseus and the Minotaur, and the latter's death. As his life ebbs, the Minotaur acquires the power of human language: he describes the emptiness of his existence. As Ariadne and Theseus sail away, the Keres return and feed upon the body of the Minotaur, mirroring the end of the first half of the drama.

© David Harsent, 2008