19.04.2022 | Artist

Harrison Birtwistle (1934-2022)

Great British composer Harrison Birtwistle has died, aged 87. His rugged, craggy music, often drawing inspiration from myth, magic and ritual, went its own way, “relentlessly and obstinately” as Pierre Boulez once observed, accumulating and radiating energy. Birtwistle took the aesthetic position that “highly polished surfaces are dangerous. You can only see your own reflection in them. I have tried to keep a sort of roughness in what I do. If I was a sculptor, I would want to see the chisel marks.’
Tributes to Birtwistle are to be found in newspapers around the world today, many of them emphasizing his independent spirit, his distance from musical trends and schools, and his indifference to outside opinion.  “I have an idea,” he once said. “I try to express it as clearly as I can.  Criticism is somebody else’s problem.” In time, many major awards came his way, from the Grawemeyer Award for Musical Composition to the Ernst von Siemens Prize and the Wihuri Sibelius Prize.
If “juxtapositions of violence and lyricism” , to quote Bayan Northcott, often characterised Birtwistle’s wide-ranging work, the latter was to the  forefront on his sole ECM New Series album, Chamber Music, recorded at Munich’s Herkulessaal in 2011, with an outstanding cast of musicians –  violinist Lisa Batiashvili, cellist Adrian Brendel, pianist Till Fellner, soprano Amy Freston and baritone Roderick Williams. The album begins and ends with settings of the poetry of Lorine Niedecker, which began life, Birtwistle said, as “a bunch of flowers” proffered as a birthday salute to Elliott Carter. Reviewers found in these pieces a Webern-like concentration. The poetry of Rilke, meanwhile, provided the impetus for Bogenstrich, for baritone, cello and piano.  At the album’s centre is the 16 minute single movement Trio, with elaborate patterning, gestures and responses for piano, violin and cello.

photo by Hanya Chlala

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